A response to Eric Schmidt’s memo to tech companies

us-court-briefing_FacebookEric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has written an editorial in the NYT setting out a memo for tech companies, governments and social media users on their role in fighting online hate entitled “How to build a better web“.

In the article he warns against censorship by the state, and says that: “It’s our responsibility to demonstrate that stability and free expression go hand in hand. We should make it ever easier to see the news from another country’s point of view, and understand the global consciousness free from filter or bias. We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media — sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment.”

It is great see a tech industry leader accept that technology companies have an active role to play in maintaining stability and cross-cultural relations. That a lot of people expressing their hate or love freely and simultaneously will not automatically lead to a better world. It is also great to hear him admit (somewhat) that the tools for that stability have to be coded into the architecture of this technology.

It is what OHPI has demanded from the start.

What we would have liked more is a clear guideline on what technology companies can do to contain the spread of online hate. We would have also liked to hear that terrorists using online spaces to spread hate is the last frontier of the misuse of online tools. It is the everyday hate we spread using social media – against people with whom we differ for reasons of community, colour, religious or political beliefs – that create a fertile ground of hard core haters and extremists to exploit. Tech companies can’t exterminate the former without addressing the latter. Otherwise, they will merely be putting out fires. Today, Islamic terrorism is our bugbear, tomorrow it might be something else. In the meantime, the price will be paid by innocent people in the form of physical and psychological harm.

Communication on the Internet is not value neutral. Positive messages harness and bring people together. Negative and hateful messages draw us apart. It is time that technology companies – that create the spaces in which this communication takes place – play an active role in containing harmful messages and behaviours and promoting counter messages.

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