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Algorithms shouldn't decide whose voices are heard: Baroness Morgan reviews 'Dangerous Ideas'

Algorithms shouldn't decide whose voices are heard: Baroness Morgan reviews 'Dangerous Ideas'

Donald Trump blames the social media app Twitter for stifling free speech and interfering in the forthcoming presidential election, May 2020 | Alamy

3 min read

An engaging book asking important questions, Eric Berkowitz may argue that history demonstrates censorship doesn’t work – but struggles to reconcile the impact of the internet on the modern age

This book is billed as “A brief history of Censorship in the West from the Ancients to Fake News”. It proceeds at speed through more than 2,000 years of debates about who decides what we see, what we know, and what we might say.

Berkowitz moves through ancient Greece, early Christianity, monarchies and governments of all types and into the impact of seditious libel, obscenity laws, the impact of the printing press, censorship in wartime, mass communication innovations such as cinema (the BBFC was originally the British Board of Film Censors), and then the internet and social media. He writes, “the compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak, because speech – words, images, expression itself – exerts power”.

As both Houses of Parliament prepare to start considering in detail the Online Safety Bill, this engaging book asks important questions about the wisdom and effectiveness of censorship, but has a contradiction at its core – namely the impact of the internet in the modern age.

Berkowitz confidently asserts both at the start and the end of his book that “censorship doesn’t work” and argues that “striking at speech to eliminate a dangerous idea, is not only ineffective, it will cause worse mischief in the long run.”  

The Online Safety Bill will need much debate in Parliament

He is critical of efforts to try to regulate online speech but he also has to acknowledge that when “speech becomes the enemy of free expression, when citizen speakers are reduced to online ‘users,’ whose scarce attention is manhandled for profit; when tsunamis of online garbage are weaponized to drown out voices and dilute truth; when algorithms decide whose voices are heard or magnified … it may be time to rethink some cherished assumptions”.  

The struggle by Berkowitz to reconcile these two assertions – namely censorship doesn’t work but some action may now be needed in light of the modern internet – means that his historical overview of censorship is much stronger than his narrative on the issues of the modern day. Although he covers it briefly in his afterword, he was fortunate that the bulk of his book was clearly written before the storming of Capitol Hill, the role of Donald Trump at that time and his subsequent expulsion from Twitter and Facebook. 

Where Berkowitz is on stronger ground, as he sets out the role of legislatures and courts over the centuries in legislating for and opining on the rights around freedom of speech and expression, is that it should not be private companies solely deciding which voices are heard. As he says “non-governmental actors in the form of internet and social media platforms have achieved raw power over speech beyond the aspirations of even the most repressive governments”. The Online Safety Bill will need much debate in Parliament – and this will be only our first foray into the areas covered by the Bill – but it must surely be right that the debate happens in both Houses and isn’t left to oversight boards and algorithms to decide how online content is regulated.

Baroness Morgan of Cotes is a Conservative peer and former culture secretary 2019-2020

Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News by Eric Berkowitz, is published by The Westbourne Press

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