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Freedom to Seek Matters

colin

31 May 2022

9 min

A book, phone, laptop, and computer mouse, chained together

You would have to be living on Mars not to have noticed the way “free speech” is a hot topic. The phrase is being used as a political weapon on all sides of the debate, and frequently since Elon Musk announced his bid to take control of Twitter. If you are you on one side of the debate here is a test:

Do you think Twitter:

A: is rife with misinformation?

OR

B: has a censorship problem?

If you answered A OR B, then:

  • you know something about our new world order of online propaganda and misinformation.
  • your suggested prescription is to read “On Liberty” by Mill (John Stuart and yes, Harriet Taylor)

If you answered, “what the f&%k, it’s A AND B”, then:

  • congratulations
  • you may optionally skip the next section.

Words as Weapons

Have you noticed how the words misinformation, disinformation and censorship are thrown around nowadays? How many using them know what they mean? To put back some fun into your Twitter doom-scrolling, try replacing these three words each time they appear, with the word propaganda. It might even reveal some truths.

A Tweet from Mojeek CEO, Colin Hayhurst, which reads: Their propaganda is your disinformation. Your propaganda is their disinformation. How will we resurrect the first casualty of the information war, when the time comes?

https://twitter.com/ColinHayhurst/status/1508793272025718785

Yes, Twitter is rife with misinformation. And so is marketing. Across the Web and within platforms. Does Twitter have challenges with misinformation, censorship and free speech? Of course. But so does the Web, journalism and society. At the heart of this huge and growing online problem is decreasing levels of trust. As the Substack founders put it:

“censorship of bad ideas makes people less likely, not more likely, to trust good ideas” …

“when you use censorship to silence certain voices or push them to another place, you don’t make the misinformation problem disappear but you do make the mistrust problem worse.”

Dark Information

The first casualty of war is truth, they say. We may live in a post-truth era, but some of us will not accept the death of truth. Some of us see seeds of distrust sown. And distrust growing, as more “censorship” occurs. Freedom of speech is needed more than ever and yet it is sometimes being overly-suppressed doing further damage.

An international search engine that believes in free speech certainly should be for truth first, as we strive to be at Mojeek. Unfortunately we now have a situation where Twitter, Google and others, sometimes censor or suppress what they consider to be non-consensus views and information.

If you are on Twitter you will have noticed. But with Google it’s not as obvious. If you don’t believe so, then take a look at their content policy that strangely appears only as an answer on their help pages (one part illustrated below). Why doesn’t it appear on their policy site? Search me.

Google's Medical Content Policy, which reads: We don't allow content that contradicts or runs contrary to scientific or medical consensus and evidence-based best practices.

Censorship is often obvious on Twitter, where actions taken are experienced by the poster. These experiences are easily shared with followers. But for web search, it’s more like:

“What doesn’t show, you may may never know”

If Twitter has a freedom of speech problem, then Google has a freedom to seek problem. A problem that is deeper, more insidious, and yet largely hidden. Call it the Dark Information phenomena. Not as mysterious as Dark Matter, but arguably as fundamental and certainly more dangerous given the monopoly that Google holds.

“If Twitter has a freedom of speech problem, then Google has a freedom to seek problem.”

Freedom to Seek

At Mojeek we believe in the value of Information Neutrality (see a formal definition in a previous blog post). Search results should not depend on who is doing the searching, and vary with settings that they can control. Two people doing the same search with the same settings (notably location and language, and at the same time) should get exactly the same organic search results, as they do in Mojeek.

We aim to be neutral also in our indexing. In general it is not for Mojeek staff to make value judgements on the importance of webpages. This matter is dealt with by applying search algorithms uniformly. In 2007, Google believed similarly, as you can see here on the Wayback Machine. The relevant words on that page (“Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google”) changed around 2011 and then disappeared, in early 2015.

At Mojeek we believe you should be free to seek, across the open web that we have indexed. Freedom to seek has internationally recognised limits however, so like other search engines we will not show search results that are deemed to be hosting illegal content. The most prevalent and serious cases of illegal content relate to Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) and terrorism.

Human Rights

We concur, in other words, with the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) Articles shown below (with bold highlights by us to emphasise those aspects which particularly relate to search):

Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 29:

2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Now those articles are an aspiration. There are no national regulations that require Google, Mojeek or any commercial entity, to comply with them. Businesses can in practice choose to do what they like, including Google. Although, with Google as a near monopoly many people understandably question this. Still it is a fact that governments do not on transfer this aspiration into law, except where it relates to the State itself. For instance the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) refers to freedom of expression with the words “without interference by public authority”, as follows:

Article 10 – Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In the US, the First Amendment broadly protects the rights of free speech which relates to free and public expression of opinions without censorship, interference, or restraint by the government. Many people, certainly in the current climate, don’t know or seem to forget about the last part “by the government”.

Google, Twitter and all other private companies are in fact free to make business decisions, about what they choose to show, takedown and how they rank. These realities often get lost in the heated debate about “free speech” and “censorship”. Still, when these and other notable platforms are near monopolies of their domain, it is understandable that there is heated debate.

History rhymes

The growth of the internet and web has seen a fluctuating and complex battle for digital freedoms. But it is the emergence of platform powers, and most notably monopolies, that have transformed these battles into threats to democracy. Non-negotiable private laws (aka terms and conditions, platform policies etc.) are too often used, as largely unseen weapons, wielded by the platforms. And now we are seeing a counter reaction from governments with emerging public laws that are pouring fuel on the fire, in the name of our safety.

We would do well to remember how the modern concept of freedoms emerged in Europe. It did so as the autonomy offered by printing emerged in societies that were living under overarching church and state powers. Views that freedom of expression should be tolerated, not censured or punished by law, were developed as printing become more widely available and a press emerged. In England, John Milton published Areopagitica in 1664, as a response to the re-introduction of government licensing of printers. Church authorities had previously refused him a publication license for a paper on divorce. Areopagitica, “A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing”, published by Milton without a license, sought to oppose licensing and censorship, in a philosophical defence of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression. It was published almost 200 years before Mill’s “On Liberty”, and includes timeless gems such as these:

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

and on licencing of printing:

“it will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made both in religious and civil wisdom.”

“Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards.”

Are You Free to Seek?

How does all this debate about free speech, and misinformation (or whatever you want to call it), relate to search? Underlying it all we have information; information that we seek, create, express, share and discuss. Information is also used for propaganda and persuasion, including marketing and advertising where it is often, but not always, experienced in negative ways.

Where once we referred to books and went to libraries now we go online to find and navigate online sources. Where we once asked an elder for advice, now we seek out experts through networking and reading their content. Where we once went to the mall or high street, we now go shopping online. Where we once went to the playground or park, now we explore virtual worlds. Sometimes we do these things in closed platforms, and often we turn to the more open web.

How do we find our way? Often times our tool is search. It might be search within platforms. And often we tur to general purpose, or vertical, search engines. Search thus plays a fundamental role in how and where we find information, how we transact and how we make decisions. We like to think we make our own choices freely, when we search. But unless you are especially diligent and aware, your practical freedom to seek is a delusion. The choices you make are massively guided by the designs decisions of your chosen search provider(s).

How much influence does Google, or Microsoft have on where you (choose to) navigate to? What about Apple? Together these US Gatekeepers may have far more sway over your life than you are conscious of. Do you feel free to seek, or are you partially controlled and influenced by them? Are the choices they present you neutral?

Search neutrality is fundamental to our thinking and design at Mojeek. We recognise that the design decisions we make also influence what you find, which is a reason we advocate for and practice search diversity. We consider “personalisation” to be, at heart, a process of manipulation; wrapped-up in the coat of convenience. As we have explained before: “Mojeek doesn't have an agenda, and neither does it support any particular view, whether that's in regard to politics or if blue is a nicer colour than green.” It’s not for Mojeek staff to take a view on whose views are superior, or more important. Doing so would contribute to the erosion of trust that is becoming increasingly prevalent across society and the world.

The importance of the freedom to seek is huge. Like free speech, the issues surrounding freedom to seek are nuanced and complex; much more than this post can convey. But this freedom must be nurtured and cherished. Doing this drives Mojeek forward with purpose, as it has done since our inception in 2004. Our mission has never felt more important.

colin

31 May 2022

9 min

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