Is free expression online threatened by content removal?
U.S. laws regulating online speech offer broad protections for private companies, but experts worry free expression may be threatened by "better safe than sorry" voluntary censorship.
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- U.S. laws regulating online speech offer broad protections for internet intermediaries.
- Despite this, companies typically follow a "better safe than sorry" approach to protect against legal action or loss of reputation.
- Silencing contentious opinions can have detrimental effects, such as social exclusion and negating reconciliation.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. At the tender age of five, she joined her parents on Westboro's now notorious picket lines. She held up signs reading 'God Hates Fags' to protest the funerals of homosexual men. She thanked God for dead soldiers at the funerals of Afghanistan war veterans. In 2009, she took the church's vitriol online and began tweeting for the congregation.
If one organization seemed primed to be deplatformed online, it's Westboro. The church is considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and others. Its radical opinions seem patently designed to insult those on the left, on the right, and with common decency. Although Phelps-Roper no longer tweets for the church — we'll return to her story later — the church maintains various Twitter accounts (though others have been suspended.)
How is it that an organization as universally despised as Westboro can maintain an online presence? The answer lays in the United States' cultural traditions of free expression, and the complex interplay between U.S. laws, public opinion, and online intermediaries attempting to navigate these new digital public spaces.
How U.S. laws regulate online speech
The Free Speech Wall in Charlottesville, VA.
All online content arrives to our screens through intermediaries: ISPs, DNSs, hosts, search engines, social media platforms, to name but a few. Their responsibilities differ when it comes to regulating content, but for simplicity we'll be considering them as a single group.
Intermediaries maintain some degree of obligation for the content published or shared through their service, yet U.S. liability law grants them broad immunity, even when compared to other Western democracies. They remain legally safe as long as the content originates from the users, and they remove any illegal content once it is made known to them.
Daphne Keller is the Director of Intermediary Liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. In a Hoover Institution essay, she notes that intermediary liability falls mostly under three laws. They are:
The Communications Decency Act (CDA). This law effectively "immunizes platforms from traditional speech torts, such as defamation, and other civil claims." But platforms lose that protection if they create, edit, or collaborate with users on the content.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA ensures intermediaries can avoid liability without resorting to monitoring user speech. It also adds due process protocols, allowing defendants to argue against "mistaken or malicious claims."
Federal Criminal Law. Keller points out that intermediaries are also bound to criminal law. With regards to terrorism and child pornography, for example, intermediaries are not held liable if they remove the material and follow reporting requirements.
Of course, as private organizations, intermediaries have their own policies as well. Hate speech, for example, is not illegal in the United States; however, Twitter enforces a policy against hateful conduct. The policy prohibits inciting violence or harm against other people, but also the spread of fearful stereotypes, symbols associated with hate groups, and slurs designed to dehumanize someone.
The threat of over-removal
Despite these broad immunities, over-removal of content and speech remains a reality on today's internet. Size is part of the problem. As Keller notes in her essay, Google received "a few hundred DMCA notices" in 2006. Today, the search engine receives millions per day. Under such a strain, intermediaries can find it difficult to assess the validity of takedown requests.
A Takedown Project report undertaken by researchers at UC Berkeley and Columbia University found that intermediaries "may be subject to large numbers of suspect claims, even from a single individual."
The researchers argued that the automated systems used by large intermediaries to assess claims were in need of more accurate algorithms and human review. Due process safeguards were also found to be lacking.
Small intermediaries, who may not possess the resources and time to litigate claims, follow "better safe than sorry" polices, which can lead to compliance of all claims as a matter of course.
Platforms can also be motivated to remove extreme content over political worries, loss of customers or investors, and to create more inviting online spaces. Even if contentious speech is legal, platforms may remove it just to be safe.
Network service CloudFlare faced such a reputational dilemma in 2017. The organization dropped far-right message board the Daily Stormer from its services after claims were made by Stormer staff that CloudFlare supported its ideology.
CloudFlare co-founder Matthew Prince called the decision necessary but dangerous. In a release, he said, "We're going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove [the claim] about not terminating a customer due to political pressure."
What we lose when we over-regulate
Former Westboro Baptist Church Member Megan Phelps-Rope of 'The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman' speaks onstage during the National Geographic Channels portion of the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.
(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
CloudFlare's dilemma shows the difficulties of private organizations, which are not bound by the same laws as government entities, regulating services that have effectively evolved to become public spaces. Given the growing ubiquity of online spaces, finding the proper balance will be imperative.
In the search for responsible regulation, we must be careful to not silence free expression. Whether by accident or design, such actions will not change the minds of the people holding these ideas. It instead leads to emotions like anger and alienation, in turn creating a sense of prosecution and profound injustice. Unresolved, these emotions are considered to heighten the risk of extremism and political violence.
Lee Rowland, American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney, explains the difficulty of navigating the benefits and risks:
It's not a comfortable thing to talk about, because nobody wants to see Nazi ideology, but I will say that I do want the ability to see and find speech that reflects actual human beliefs. That's how we know what's out there. It doesn't benefit us to be blindsided by the private organizing of white supremacist. […] Enforcing that kind of purity only hides those beliefs; it doesn't change them.
We also run the risk of losing an important tool for personal development, both for ourselves and those we disagree with. If people are unable to engage in conversation with bad ideas, we'll lose remedies for extreme ideological thought, such as debate and forced examination.
This is exactly what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper. After she started tweeting for Westboro, she encountered much hostility for the views she espoused. But among the bellicose voices, she also met people willing to engage her in civil debate.
"There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred," Phelps-Roper said during her TED talk. "We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another."
Over time, these conversations changed her perspective. Her relationship with Westboro and its hateful ideology ended in 2012.
"My friends on Twitter didn't abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn," she added. "They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain, and violence."
There is definitely a need to regulate speech online. But Phelps-Roper's story is a warning of all we'll lose if free expression becomes threatened online.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.
About 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid slammed into present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, triggering the extinction of dinosaurs. Scientists estimate the impact killed 75 percent of life on Earth. But what's remained more mysterious is how the event shaped the future of plant life, specifically tropical rainforests.
A new study published in Science explores how the so-called bolide impact at the end of the Cretaceous period paved the way for the evolution of our modern rainforests, the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth.
For the study, researchers analyzed thousands of samples of fossil pollen, leaves, and spores collected from various sites across Colombia. The researchers analyzed the samples to determine which types of plants were dominant, the diversity of plant life, and how insects interacted with plants.
All samples dated back to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, some 70 million to 56 million years ago. Back then, the region's climate was mostly humid and hot, as it is today. However, the composition and structure of forests were quite different before the impact, according to the study results.
Tropical jungle with river and sun beam and foggy in the gardenSASITHORN via Adobe Stock
For one, the region's rainforests used to have a roughly equal mix of angiosperms (shrubs and flowering trees) and plants like conifers and ferns. The rainforests also had a more open canopy structure, which allowed more light to reach the forest floor and meant that plants faced less competition for light.
What changed after the asteroid hit? The results suggest the impact and its aftermath led to a 45 percent decrease in plant diversity, a loss from which the region took about 6 million years to recover. But different plants came to replace the old ones, with an increasing proportion of flowering plants sprouting up over the millennia.
"A single historical accident changed the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of tropical rainforests," Carlos Jaramillo, study author and paleopalynologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, told Science News. "The forests that we have today are really the by-product of what happened 66 million years ago."
Today's rainforests are significantly more biodiverse than they were 66 million years ago. One potential reason is that the more densely packed canopy structure of the post-impact era increased competition among plants, "leading to the vertical complexity seen in modern rainforests," the researchers wrote.
The extinction of long-necked, leaf-eating dinosaurs probably helped maintain this closed-canopy structure. Also boosting biodiversity was ash from the impact, which effectively fertilized the soil by adding more phosphorus. This likely benefited flowering plants over the conifers and ferns of the pre-impact era.
In addition to unraveling some of the mysteries about the origins of South America's lush biodiversity, the findings highlight how, even though life finds a way to recover from catastrophe, it can take a long time.
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