Eric Schmidt on How to Build a Better Web – The New York Times:
Authoritarian governments tell their citizens that censorship is necessary for stability. 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. We should target social accounts for terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and remove videos before they spread, or help those countering terrorist messages to find their voice. Without this type of leadership from government, from citizens, from tech companies, the Internet could become a vehicle for further disaggregation of poorly built societies, and the empowerment of the wrong people, and the wrong voices.
The good news is, it’s all within reach. Intuition, compassion, creativity — these are the tools that we will use to combat violence and terror online, to drown out the hate with a broadly shared humanity that only the Web makes possible. It’s up to us to make sure that when the young girl reading this in Indonesia on her tablet moves on from this page, the Web that awaits her is a safe and vibrant place, free from coercion and conformity.
The whole essay is a great read. Too many essays about “what tech companies can and should do to combat hate and terror” focus on restrictions, and limits, and increased surveillance that comes with decreased personal liberties.
Schmidt nods at that stuff, but he chooses to focus on the Internet’s capabilities to diminish the shadows by providing a greater amount of light. I was so moved by the last two paragraphs that I read them verbatim in this week’s Material Podcast (which should post on Thursday) and I wanted to put them here, too.
When Schmidt spoke of “spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment” he was clearly speaking speculatively. But that’s the sort of thing that Google is well-positioned to do. They have the brainpower, they have the specific deep-learning technology, and they have the position within society as the unofficial cataloguer and indexer of the world’s thought and conversation.
It’d be great to have a politically and ideologically-neutral markup system for Web content. What if Chrome could infer, from context, that a certain thing in a blog post is probably being presented as a statement of fact…and thus, subject to further exploration?
“Meanwhile, studies at the University of Michigan are raising troubling concerns about a statistical link between futons and the 33% increase in the number of ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ movies in 2016…”
There’s a blue squiggly line underneath the line. Clicking it takes you to a targeted Google search about the actual study, and the discussions around it. You notice that many of the more quotable quotes were copied and pasted directly from a press release that was sent out by a think-tank called “Americans For Libertationous Change Towards Greatness.” A squiggly line under that leads to your discovery that this think-tank is 100% funded by the National Pull-Out Sofa And Adjustable Bed Co-Marketing Board.
I’m making up a silly example to avoid hot-button topics. Google’s Spock Engines are great at neutral facts. The squiggly lines in an article about guns would help people learn the terrible human cost of gun violence in America…but they would also help people learn that there are many people who own a handgun because of a threat to their safety that’s anything but hypothetical or paranoid.
Eric Schmidt’s last paragraph is lovely. The same infrastructure that put a hateful piece of speech in front of a little girl can also make sure that the very next thing she sees is something constructive and truthful, instead of dark and built on fear and lies. Seek light on the Internet, and you’ll find it.
Google and other tech companies can make seeking out and living inside a larger world more attractive and easy than hiding inside a small, scared, and poorly-informed community. Fear only wins because truth is usually harder.