A funny thing happened last night, at a remarkable event in London in celebration of free speech with Russell Brand and Michael Shellenberger. Before the proceedings Michael suggested we give prepared remarks. I wrote a speech, tinkering with it at night on the plane over, then all day after landing. At the event Michael stood before the large crowd and extemporaneously delivered a rousing address. I slid what I wrote under a chair.
Though I did end up mumbling a few things from memory, this is the whole speech, as written:
It’s heartening to see so many faces here in London, to talk about the crisis of free speech around the globe, or to protest censorship, or whatever it is we’re doing exactly. Before we begin, I think it’s important to make a distinction. Unlike Russell and the rest of our hosts, Michael and I, and a few of us in the crowd, are Americans. For us, belief in unfettered free speech is a core part of our character. It’s a big reason that we Americans enjoy the wonderful reputation we do all around the world, especially here in Europe, where (I’m sorry to tell you) we hear you whispering to the restaurant hostess that you’d like to be seated at the table as far away from us as possible.
That was meant to be a laugh line, but in some ways, that’s what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution comes down to: the right to be an asshole. We have a prettier way of saying it — a right to petition for a redress of grievances — but it’s the same basic idea.
Isn’t that a beautiful phrase, a redress of grievances? Great, memorable language. Like a lot of Americans, I know the First Amendment by heart. I’ve recited it to myself enough to know it doesn’t say the government gives me the right to speech, assembly, a free press. It says I have those things, already. As a person, as a citizen.
This is a very American thing, the idea that rights aren’t conferred, but a part of us, like our livers, and you can’t take them away without destroying who we are. That’s why in other contexts you’ll hear some of us say things like, “I’ll give you this gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands!”
Some people roll their eyes and think that sounds crazy, but we know that guy actually means it, and to a lot of us it makes sense. We’re touchy about rights, especially about the first ones: speech, assembly, religion, the free press.
But we’re not here tonight to debate the virtues of American speech law versus the European tradition. Instead, Michael and I are here to tell a horror story that concerns people from all countries. Last year, he and I were offered a unique opportunity to look at the internal documentation of Twitter.
I entered that story lugging old-fashioned, legalistic, American views about rights, hoping to answer maybe one or two questions. Had the FBI, for instance, ever told the company what to do in a key speech episode? If so, that would be a First Amendment violation. Big stuff!
But after looking at thousands of emails and Slack chats, I first started to get a headache, then became confused. I realized the old-school Enlightenment-era protections I grew up revering were designed to counter authoritarianism as people understood the concept hundreds of years ago, back in the days of tri-cornered hats and streets lined with horse manure.
What Michael and I were looking at was something new, an Internet-age approach to political control that uses brute digital force to alter reality itself. We certainly saw plenty of examples of censorship and de-platforming and government collaboration in those efforts. However, it’s clear that the idea behind the sweeping system of digital surveillance combined with thousands or even millions of subtle rewards and punishments built into the online experience, is to condition people to censor themselves.