We knew well about the dangers of a cozy relationship between the state and giant corporations—and how regulations that are ostensibly designed to limit corporate power are captured and twisted by the most powerful companies to stymie competition. Such relationships define our political economy. But tech companies carry a very different sort of cargo—they trade in the commodities of speech. Once we extend the state into this realm, we’re entering danger territory.
John Milton railed against this very thing in Areopagitica—the dangerous hubris of government playing the role of gatekeeper to the world of knowledge:
Are twenty men enough to estimate all the genius and the good sense of England? Is there to be a monopoly of knowledge; are the products of all English brains to be stamped like broadcloth and woolpacks? The affront is not to the educated alone: the common people are just as much wronged by the notion that they are too giddy to be trusted with a flighty tract.
We don’t need to use our imaginations here. There are examples all over the world—in Russia, in China—where governments have made their peace with social media, by setting the terms that govern it. These regimes permit a cacophony of ideas, except for the ones that truly challenge political power.
Donald Trump should be the object lesson that shuts down this debate before it begins. Not since World War I has the United States had a president who so disrespects the idea of free speech—who threatens to file libel lawsuits and muses openly about loosening libel laws, who attempts to rile hatred of media, who talks fawningly of authoritarian leaders in other countries.
Yet these times, for all of their historic echoes, are different. The political dynamic is familiar, but the technology is unprecedented. The present global explosion of anxiety and hate is unlike anything most of us have ever witnessed. People don’t know how to confront these evils, which come in nearly every direction, in the form of theological zealots, demagogic populists, avowed racists, and trollish misogynists. In the face of such menace, it’s natural to appeal to a higher power for protection—but in our panic we need to be clear about which threats are genuine and which are merely rhetorical. And panic shouldn’t lead us to seek protection that inadvertently squashes our own liberties.
John Milton was an expert on dangerous ideas. His greatest work, of course, was Paradise Lost—about the Garden of Eden, the ultimate story of human exposure to danger. Even in the Areopagitica, he had interesting thoughts about the lessons of Adam and Eve—about how the forbidden fruit is the essence of freedom and the precondition for morality. Long before John Stuart Mill wrote about the marketplace of ideas, Milton wrote beautifully about the imperative of testing our ideas:
Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. ... They are not skillful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin. Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably…. It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into this world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is, of knowing good by evil.
Milton, the Puritan, believed that Truth could never be known until the second coming. Until then, it would remain elusive. And in the meantime, we all search for the truth, discovering it through errors, unimpeded by censors, unafraid of what we might encounter.