On 10 March 2022 Gabriel Weinberg the CEO of Duck Duck Go, the privacy focused search engine made an announcement on twitter regarding the Down Ranking of Russian based news sites, and it appears many people lost their minds.
From the knee-jerk reaction on Twitter, it's clear people haven't thought this announcement through and have not considered what Weinberg was attempting to communicate. I thought I would provide my take on the announcement and what it actually means and why a company which respects privacy would engage in a exercise such as this.
First, a few basics are required, back in 2014 I posted about how I made the switch to Duck Duck Go , the privacy focused search engine, and I would have to say I have remained a fan, and the search engine is my default engine of choice, If I'm honest I don't use any other search engine. All points I raised in my original post have remained true over the passage of time. Even after this announcement I don't think my mind will change. in fact I continue to use the search engine.
The further points, probably relate more to the concepts of Free Markets, Freedom of Speech and the Right to privacy I believe this is where things get a little more nuanced.
What is a free market
A market is free if people can buy and sell whatever they want without any interference from a government, and if prices are set by supply and demand.
I am a firm believer in Free Markets and have a strong preference for Natural Law over Positive law in commerce. These points are discussed are far more eloquently and with greater detail by Dominic Frisby in Life after the state: Why we don't need government, but I will attempt my best to bring the thoughts into the crux of this debate.
Defined as law established by government and refers not just to laws but to legislation, regulations, decrees, orders and so on which often grant or take away privileges from certain groups or individuals.
Exist whether or not governments enforce them, they are inherent, they're not conferred by an act of legislation.
It is by natural law that we are born, that we grow, eat, sleep and reproduce, that we are social animals that live and support each other in groups, that we look after our children; that we have access to air, water and the natural world; that Natural Law we do not murder people; that we do not enslave them; that we keep our profits from our endeavours ; that we live free and pursue happiness as long as it does not impinge on liberty, life and happiness of others.
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What is Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech forms a fundamental part of our democracy. However, Democracy may be a flawed concept in of itself. A fact, discussed in detail by David Graeber in The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement . Democracy may be viewed as a tool used by oppressive states, to provide the populace with the illusion of participation of control.
Freedom of speech, for the most is often a component of that illusion and nothing more than a legal construct with caveats.
Freedom of speech, in the UK and a number of other states across the globe, is protected by Common Law and also guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), where everyone has the right to freedom of expression
This right is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998, where the HRA requires the courts to interpret legislation in a way which is compatible with the Article 10 ECHR right so far as it is possible to do so. Other states across Europe and the globe will have similar arrangements.
Under the Article 10 right, freedom of expression includes the right to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.
This means that both the public and the press are able to share what they think, feel and believe without censorship, even where the expression of their views may shock, disturb or offend the deeply-held beliefs of others.
This is not, however, an absolute right it is a qualified right. which means It carries with it duties and responsibilities, and can be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties.
Any limitations on the right to free speech must be both prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society. These limitations must also be proportionate.
Subject to these conditions, Article 10 goes on to specify the limited circumstances in which the right to free speech can be legitimately curtailed. These include where it is in;
- interests of national security or public safety;
- prevention of crime and disorder;
- prevention of disclosure of information received in confidence;
- protection of health or morals;
- protection of the rights and reputation of others;
- maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Article 10 is a qualified right. Accordingly, freedom of expression does not protect all statements, where the rights of the individual must be balanced against the public interest in permitting free speech.
This means that the legislature and the courts can intervene to penalise or censor the use of language or conduct which crosses a culturally acceptable line.
Whether or not a restriction on free speech is justified will depend on a number of different factors, including;
- Identity of the speaker
- Context and purpose of the speech used
- Actual words spoken or written
Speech that is intended to inform others, rather than offend, attracts greater protection, where journalism, political campaigning and commentary on matters of public interest generally enjoy a very high degree of protection.
Deeply-held beliefs, opinions and ideas cannot be immune from criticism or satire, where the courts have often held that the right to free speech should not be restricted simply because it may be offensive or insulting to others.
In essence, a democratic society depends on the freedom to express, debate, challenge and even ridicule opposing viewpoints.
Freedom of speech does not guarantee that one can make up completely fake information about subjects and go around spreading them without repercussions or limitations.
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Right to privacy
Under UK law and I would suspect many other jurisdictions, there is no single overarching right to privacy, although there are various causes of action designed to protect the right to privacy and confidentiality, including the misuse of private information and breach of confidence.
Over 130 countries have constitutional statements regarding the protection of privacy. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to privacy is, in effect, contained in Article 8, the right to respect for family and private life.
It is important to know that it is also a qualified right. Again as with the right to freedom of speech, this means it is not absolute, and can be interfered with in certain limited situations, for example to protect national security or freedom of expression. However, any interference has to be necessary and proportionate.
Misuse of private information involves the wrongful or threatened publication of personal information, such as extra-marital affairs, and is often used by celebrities, politicians or other high-profile figures in infringement of privacy complaints.
Breach of confidence is an area of law typically used by individuals and businesses looking to protect sensitive and confidential commercial information, such as financial information or trade secrets.
Now that we have established that both freedom of speech and privacy are qualified rights. This leads to the greater problem of just who or what qualifies those rights?
This is the grey area of the law. This also the cause of most arguments and debates. Some would argue that freedom of speech meaning that implies that one has the power to say whatever one chooses, however this has only ever has been partly true.
The crux of problem is that freedom of speech can and only ever has been guided by opinion.
In an ideal world, and the world that Freedom of speech was naively conceived in was that it was a right to express only what was true or corroborated by evidence. However, human beings do not inhabit such a world and freedom of speech is often used as a veil to pedal all forms of bullshit to an unsuspecting public.
Privacy is also often abused, especially in the age where voter and the consumer are the product.
Your rights are constantly being traded like commodities in both stock exchanges and political institutions. Edward Sownden details these facts in his book Snowden in his book Permanent Record
Edward Snowden, the man who risked everything to expose the US governments system of mass surveillance, reveals for the first time the story of his life, including how he helped to build that system and what motivated him to try to bring it down.
Misinformation and Disinformation
Over the past decade, there has been an ever increasing rise in the use of Misinformation and Disinformation. This problem has reached epidemic levels across all social media platforms
False or out-of-context information that is presented as fact regardless of an intent to deceive.
a type of misinformation that is intentionally false and intended to deceive or mislead.
Both misinformation and disinformation involve the sharing of bad or debunked information, with varying intents and purposes.
It has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt that the Russian state has been actively involved in the use of, dissemination and promotion of Misinformation and Disinformation in order to gain influence and drive its own agenda.
That being said they do not stand unopposed in competing for the title as world leaders in disinformation and misinformation. Many of our western states, political organisations and corporations are actively engaged in these tactics and have been for quite sometime.
The ministry of Truth
In these debates I am often reminded of George Orwell's novel 1984 and I believe we are ever closer to the dystopian view of the world presented in book, if you haven't read the book, I would urge you to do so, because its amazing how a book that was written and published nearly 80 years ago, has more relevance to the world than anything ever written since.
In the book, Orwell outlines a fictitious government ministry of propaganda, the name Ministry of Truth is a misnomer because in reality it serves the opposite: it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events. However, like the other ministries, the name is also apt because it decides what "truth" is in Oceania.
The main role of the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite history to correspond with the Party's current claims. The function of Minitrue is primarily concerned with the mutability of the past, which is a central tenet of INGSOC. Inside the Ministry of Truth, employees like Winston Smith revise and recreate journals, articles, periodicals, and other forms of media to be utilized as government propaganda.
Success criteria of Misinformation and Disinformation
The campaigns of disinformation and misinformation have been remarkably successful because the main measure of success is not whether people believe the information provided but its primary goal is for people to completely mistrust all information and its sources.
I believe I'm one of the only people that may have in some way came to the defence of this decision. In truth, I really don't care if people continue to use the service or not, its their decision and I respect that.
However, the first reply that I received I marvelled at the naievety, immaturity and lack of critical thinking expressed.
I mean really what is the corollary here? So just because the Russian State does something implies that the collective "we" should do nothing? Or we should take the marker and further flood the search results with more misinformation and disinformation?
I appreciate that it may impossible to provide a complete response with sufficient critical thinking to back assertion in 280 characters, but there still is no need to make it completely intellectually bereft and just classic whataboutery
When it comes to Misinformation and Disinformation the struggle is real and it has been going on a lot longer than the average Joe in the street may realise. I've seen this first hand and I have served in various capacities in cyber security and information security over the years.
This is a problem, that if it remains unchecked and no action at all is taken, it will ultimately have some serious repercussions for the survival of the human race. The best possible outcome is that we completely obliterate ourselves and the planet based entirely on falsehoods.
I believe that best solution to this problem will come from the private sector and the ability of the free market to regulate itself. We cannot rely on the actions of a centralised state, as I am sure everyone is abundantly aware, the centralised state is corrupt and is also one of the primary sources of misinformation and disinformation.
One can only conclude from the power the argument presented by the post, that they are indeed all in favour of a centralised state engaging in the art of misinformation and disinformation while also suppressing the rights of their citizens to freedom of expression and speech. They seem to be insistent that these oppressions should continue and should in no way be countered?
The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda . It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.Garry Kasparov
Removing Warnings from Bleach
It seems the primary objections to this move by Duck Duck Go, seem to be centred around the concept of censorship. However, I think this is rather short sighted and for the most part completely misinterpreted.
The key phrase in Wienberg's post is down-rank, this does not mean censoring, removing or deleting information. The information will still be there, indexed and available to read and consume albeit it cannot be verified for its trustworthiness. Therefore the credibility of the information cannot be vouched for, because the source of the information has proven in the past to be dubious at best.
Search engines by definition try to put more relevant content higher and less relevant content lower that's not censorship, it's search ranking relevancy,Gabriel Weinberg
It appears unbeknown to the vast majority of internet users this practice has been in place for a considerable time. For the most part, there has always been and probably always will be a filter on actual data, mostly due to it a practically impossible for everyone to to have access to all the information ever available for anything to make a decision all the time. I can almost assure you that 99% of most information is completely ignored by the public and those complaining about their rights being infringed were more than likely never going to be impacted by Duck Duck Go's announcement anyway. Yet many felt it was within their right to voice their opinions anyway.
I will use the example of warnings on the bottles of bleach. What many people don't realise is this is a form of censorship and direct regulatory action by the state.
I remember being in high school science class, doing some experiment involving bleach and our teacher at the time warned us that whatever we do, we should not drink the bleach and that during the experiment we should all wear masks because bleach is dangerous.
Despite these warnings, it did not dissuade a section of the boys in group to dare each other to dink the bleach to see what happens and even not to wear there masks during the experiment only to experience breathing difficulties during the class.
This proved a number of things to me that day.
- Human beings are incredibly stupid.
- Despite having the available information humans will more than likely make the wrong decisions
- Not everyone has the same priorities and can understand the data that is provided to them
- There is also a fair portion of the population that is gullible and vulnerable.
- Other human beings may not always have your best interest at heart
This simple example also highlights why we have to have warnings on bottles of bleach and for the most part why bleach is not stored in cold drink section of the supermarket.
In a single year, poison control centers receive reports of over 50,000 cases of chlorine bleach poisonings leading to at least eight deaths. Some reported cases of accidental ingestion every year are suicides or homicides or attempted suicides or homicides, and other cases are the result of mixing pool chemicals or overuse of chlorine bleach in pools.
If we extrapolate this example and say, that the opponents of Duck Duck Go's proposal, is akin to removing the warning labels from bleach and while we're at it lets move bleach to cold drink aisle. While we're at it, lets just add "Delicious over crushed ice", why not because if there is no control over the information and data provided and no attempt to verify the information.
In fact, why stop there? Lets remove all labelling and marketing from pacakaging and everything should be in non-descript packaging, because after this can also be an interpretation of censorship or influence, because companies and organisations are telling you or even leading you into to what they want you to think about the product. Leaving it entirely up to you to deduce what you should do with the product.
Lets leave everything to up to the individual. Because after all, it appears the opponents of the censorship seem to think that we should not delegate what we need to think and see to others. Surely, this thought process should apply to everything. Or is there some form boundaries to censorship and influence ?
I am reminded that during the COVID-19 pandemic, A study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimated that about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media. Many died from drinking methanol , alcohol or Chlorine based cleaning products. These deaths can largely be attributed to a statements by a former US president that he may or may not have said, completely depending on interpretations. Incidentally, this was also president that throughout his presidency claimed there was a lot of "fake news" and consistently berated the various media outlets for spreading fake news. This was also a president who had a very strange relationship with the truth himself.
It seems that others are naive enough to the think at least that a simple smell test is good enough to protect yourself. Your average shampoo these days tend to smell like a fresh summer fruit basket. I refer back to my previous comment, that humans beings are incredibly stupid.
I'm all for leaving it up to Darwins theory of natural selection to maybe trim the waste from herd. However, I am against it if it may include innocent people who were swayed by deliberate misinformation and disinformation. Most notably because this violates the right of freedome of speech, for the protection of health or morals
I'm all to familiar with the dangers of centralised control and censorship. At the same time the unchecked, invalid and uncontrolled flow of data is a wider area of concern. Power in any form is and always will be open to abuse, one simply cannot rely on your own ability to make the right judgements.
In life, you are far more likely to be wrong than you are to be right, luck plays far more of a role in your day to day lives than we give it credit for.
In the closing chapter of Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica's Plot to Break the World, Christopher Wylie provides an outline for a code of ethics for software engineers, which is well worth a read as well as the book itself.
An internet utility is a service, application or platform whose presence has become so dominant on the internet that it becomes affected with the public interest by the very nature of its own scale
There is a further line that stuck out to me and I think this is what is at play in the Duck Duck Go decision.
internet utilities should be required to act proactively as responsible stewards of what eventually evolve into our digital commons. They must be made to understand that scale evokes innate public interests in that some cases will, by necessity, supersede thier private interests in making a profit.
In my opinion, Duck Duck Go, is acting out of this. They obviously have more insight into the data they are crawling and indexing. The analysis of the data, which I agree we are not always privy too, may conclude that the data is Fake, unverified and cannot be corroborated. As a free market thinker, I believe it is entirely up to the company to make its own decisions, you after all as the consumer are more than welcome to take your business elsewhere if you don't agree.
I for applaud Weinberg for making the statement, due to the fact that he and Duck Duck Go are being completely transparent about their decision. They could've just done so, and I could almost guarantee no one would be any the wiser.
Inside Cambridge Analytica's Plot to Break the World
whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the definitive story of the Brexit coup, the making of Bannon's America, and an ongoing crime against democracy
Making up your own mind
Time and time again, I have been presented with the argument and false narrative below.
I should be provided with all the data and I will then be able to make up my mind for myself
There are some really simple comebacks to this statement.
The first one is that there simply just isn't enough hours in the day for anyone to go around verifying all facts and information for themselves for everything that you may encounter in everyday life, and doubly so when you have no prior knowledge of the subject at hand. It simply naive for anyone to think otherwise, but you're welcome to research that fact for yourself.
For a democracy to function properly, a populace needs an informed populace with access to reliable informationCalling Bullshit - The art of scepticism in a data-driven world
Secondly, there is ample proof that people are simply susceptible to misinformation. There have been a significant number of experiment and research conducted on misinformation that have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that humans are susceptible to misinformation. Hence why it is such a great tactic to use and apply to sway the thought processes of a target population.
Do your own research
Often I will read posts from supposed freedom of speech warriors, insisting that people should do their own research before believing what they read on news media sites, often citing that the Mainstream Media networks are the source of Fake News. There are also number of high profile politicians that often site that Main Stream Media networks are purveyors of Fake News and that people should not necessarily believe the narratives they broadcast but should rather believe the narratives provided by an alternative sources.
It's unfortunate side effect of the internet, that you can no longer trust any one source for information because of the centralised nature of service providers and their means of deriving revenue. This exposes many digital media organisations to manipulation by nefarious operators. Certain nation states have monopolised this position and actually control their independent media by supposed Free market operations. Many of corporate owners, directors, editors and journalists of independent media organisations are either directly involved or have very close ties to political institutions and inner operations of state.
For decades these arrangements have served to provide a filtering process as to what news has been deemed relevant to be hyped, sensationalised or subdued as required. This is also the primary objective behind Misinformation and Disinformation, and what is termed as the Firehose Strategy. The goal is not necessarily to make you believe untruths, but the goal is to leave the audience so disoriented and despairing that they are unable to separate truth from falsehood.
Unfortunately, for many people their idea of curating news feeds and doing their own research boils down to only read their next item of interest in their social media feeds.
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce itAlberto Brandolini
I am not proponent of censorship, but I am tolerant of censorship for the right reasons. Over the years there has been deluge of state sponsored misinformation and disinformation primarily for the benefit of a select few, I am in favour of the private sector and free markets to make an attempt to curb the effects of this state sponsored information terrorism.
It's a false narrative that this move by Duck Duck Go is censorship. It's purely grading on the source of information. The information that is known to false, fake and in majority of cases completely fabricated. In a free society it is not quantity of information that is available it is quality and validity of the data. If anything Duck Duck Go are fulfilling their obligation under the social contract that Search Engines are morally obliged to provide the most relevant and reliable data based on a search query. Misinformation or Disinformation is neither relevant and reliable.