There is something fundamental and instinctive about freedom of speech: we know and understand the imperative to be able to express ourselves without restriction. This instinct extends to our consumption of information: just as we have an unrestricted freedom in what food we may choose to eat—albeit not without financial considerations—we yearn for unrestricted freedom in our media choices, and in what —and how—we choose to consume that media.
This is where the concept of access plays a pivotal role, and why net neutrality is so crucial to upholding that access. Recall that net neutrality is the idea that all data traveling over the internet is treated fairly, and that such treatment lends itself to fair competition, transparent or absent controls, and equal access to information.
The reverse of this is unequal access to information and various media forms (social or otherwise). While current search engines and internet structures do not eliminate this, the consolidation of media control and the rise of internet censorship could move in that direction. Imagine if you were not able to click the previous two or three links because they were deemed to incite behaviors deemed unacceptable by some controlling authority. How would you feel?
That level of restriction is the unfortunate reality of people in China, Russia, Iran, and a few other countries like Thailand and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, those restrictions are on the rise, as is the overall trend of tighter media censorship. Indeed, a brief search reveals that the United Nations, American Library Association, and Public Broadcasting Service are all highlighting an increase in media repression, media censorship, and “attacks” on free speech. This is mirrored in the real world as even the U.S. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s historical work is being censored in Florida.
Complicating these moves is the very real need for increased security, privacy, and trust and safety, each of which comes with a host of considerations for what types of access restrictions may be needed.
All of this paints a bleak picture, but it not need be so. The continued proliferation of disparate tools such as audio and workplace social (Discord, Slack respectively), blockchain transactions as ledgers of truth, and anonymization tools like Tor Browsing and VPN services offer a variety of ways for humans to continue searching, seeking, and sharing information. The exercise of this fundamental human right is of paramount importance if we are to continue improving our shared planet. After all, you can’t fix what you don’t know about.