Privacy and the silo/filter/echo problem

"Silos" by Sean Kelly. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The push for “privacy” that demands an ability to allow us to restrict who sees what–enabled, for example, by new tools in Facebook and Google+–also creates and reinforces silos (filter bubbles, echo chambers) that prevent our exposure to different ideas. But  this move highlights potential conflicts between a number of rights: freedom of association and freedom of speech and the press (both from the First Amendment) and rights to privacy (from the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments). What is this conflict? Is it real? How can we (begin) to resolve it?

The Marketplace of Ideas

Core to many American arguments on behalf of the value to a liberal democracy (in the old sense of liberal) of the freedom to speak is the concept of a “marketplace of ideas,” articulated by both Thomas Jefferson and, perhaps most persuasively, by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The idea is that only through free and prolific competition amongst ideas, achieved through open discussion, can one ascertain truth and, in turn, advance society. Without hearing falsehoods, one can never be sure of one’s truth, and through proving something false one verifies and re-invigorates truth and beliefs. But without the competition, truth is unobtainable, and even if obtained, belief in it becomes enervated and weak. Constant exposure to different viewpoints is absolutely key to a functioning, progressing society.

Republic.com and the Problem of Silos

In 2002, prolific author Cass Sunstein (in Republic.com, then again in Republic.com 2.0 in 2007) expressed deep concern about exactly this, arguing that trends in individualizing information flow were as harmful to democracy as were trends to centralize information control. In other words, having 1,000 individual silos tailored to personal interests could limit the free-flow of ideas as much as (or more than) having, say, three sources of broadcast news once did. In either case we would limit our exposure to diverse viewpoints and, in the individualized, modern case, also limit the beneficial unifying effect that shared viewpoints provided.

Free Speech and Privacy

This concern is different, though possibly related, to that expressed by Eugene Volokh in regards to free speech and privacy. His argument is with governmental regulations/laws/decisions that attempt to protect privacy by restricting what other people can say. That is, privacy laws that prevent, for example, a journalist from writing about my medical history infringe on the First Amendment.

In contrast to governmental action, the impact of speech silos on democracy is not a question of infringement on private liberties. Instead, through purely private decisions, freely achieved by my own decisions and without interference from government, the same pernicious, long-term impact on democracy and liberty is achieved. In one case, government blocks the sharing of ideas to protect me, while in the other, I block my own sharing of, and my own exposure to, the ideas of others. But in both cases, the marketplace is undermined.

But in the case of government regulations, the Constitution can be invoked as an authority, while in the case of Facebook and Google+ privacy settings, there is no legal check aimed at preserving the marketplace of ideas. Arguments for liberty, which appear to fruitfully favor a multiplicity of viewpoints in the case of government regulations that restrict speech in the name of privacy, instead favor allowing individuals and companies to enable avoiding the kinds of other viewpoints that Mill–and Volokh–argue are valuable for a liberty-loving democracy. One might argue to simply get government out of the privacy game at all (since the government has encouraged Facebook, for example, to focus on allowing privacy controls)–but that doesn’t deal with the very real market ($$$, eyeballs) demand for greater control over sharing.

Sunstein advocates for a larger governmental role in overseeing media and sites in order to guarantee that people have the option, at least, of exposure to a myriad of viewpoints. (Exactly how one might do this is far from clear, though.) But the core of the contemporary filter problem is not one of big corporations restricting our exposure (or not that alone) to new ideas. Instead, it is our own individual choices to limit our own exposure to alternative viewpoints that is to blame. A benevolent dictator might be able to counteract this trend, but a liberal democracy cannot (or can it?) do so through government fiat. The conflict, then, is not so much between constitutional rights as much as it is a conflict between core values: privacy and control vs. exposure and learning.

Education

So how can we attempt to solve this conundrum? An effective K-12 educational system, backed up by a robust university education, is the best societal approach I can imagine. (Individual parents can help, too.) A classroom is one of the few locations where we as a society have the chance to force people to be exposed to new ideas. Teaching and inspiring students to seek out alternative perspectives and critically analyze them–without rejecting the new and unusual out of hand–is perhaps the least coercive method I can imagine for maintaining a marketplace of ideas in the face of tools that enable an individual to opt out.

But I’m open to other ideas, so if you have any, please share!

Kristopher Nelson

I'm currently a graduate student of the history of law and technology at the University of California, San Diego. I also provide law and technology consulting services. Additionally, I'm a non-practicing lawyer and former developer/sysadmin at a biotech non-profit. For more about me and my work, see krisnelson.org or my Google Profile.

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