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'Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain': Technology vs. Transparency

By: forbes.com 6 months ago
'Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain': Technology vs. Transparency

The only thing worse than limiting the freedom to express oneself is locking people out of the room where the public discourse is occurring.

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Many non-millennials still remember the yearly broadcast of the movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's book, . In one particularly memorable scene, Dorothy's dog Toto sneaks behind a curtain while she, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are being memorized by a massively enlarged, projected image of the wizard, who talks with an amplified, booming voice, light effects and smoke designed to create the aura of an actual wizard. Toto sniffs out a side chamber and tugs open a curtain that reveals a diminutive old man behind a curtain who's talking into a microphone while pulling levers and pressing buttons. Once exposed, the man jumps up and yells into the microphone, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

Fast-forward to 2017. We live in the internet age with once imaginary concepts such as driverless transportation, artificial intelligence and space travel rapidly becoming a reality. They all have one essential thing in common: They rely on technology developed by humans. So how does the public know that the technology it relies on each day for news, transportation, healthcare, defense and so much more is reliable and trustworthy?

In the United States particularly, the concept of free speech can run headlong into this lack of transparency. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

But what are the rights and obligations of non-governmental entities? In large part, the First Amendment was enacted to empower and protect the rights of citizens to disseminate information, especially that which is not favorable to the government, without fear of reprisal or punishment. Those same rights, however, do not apply to private entities, including the press. In 1791, when the First Amendment was adopted, the press consisted of the dissemination of the written word in newspapers, magazines and books. An author was duty-bound to accurately gather information, analyze it and then (hopefully) fairly present it to the public. This concept, which has been around for centuries, in its purest form is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate.

In 2017, the term "press" has become far more difficult to define. Every person with a phone, computer and social media account has the ability to stand in the shoes of the Fourth Estate. Instead of a few newspapers in each city, we have over 300 million potential reporters in the United States and billions globally. Therein lies one of the biggest challenges to free speech. Multi-national electronic information companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and many others have worldwide ability to control access to speech.

As Jillian C. York wrote in 2013 article, "Nevertheless, as such services become more ubiquitous (more than 1 billion people use Facebook, making it nearly as populous as China), their role as arbiters of speech becomes increasingly complex. We treat these spaces like the public commons, while, in fact, they are private companies run by unelected sovereigns. When they censor content, because of public demand, or market or government pressure, it has a chilling effect on free speech."

The only thing worse than limiting the freedom to express oneself is locking people out of the room where the public discourse is occurring. As it exists now, just having the ability to electronically access the internet does not ensure a right to be heard. Social media and online portals wield great power and as of yet, they have not remotely proved worthy of such trust. All humans are inherently imperfect. I am the least able to claim any semblance of perfection or freedom from my many flaws. But unlike the Wizard of Oz, the recognition of flaws allows for transparency. We all must resist the suggestion to pay no attention to the man -- or in some cases the code and algorithms -- behind the curtain.

Today, the curtain consists of code, algorithms, artificial intelligence and a general lack of deep understanding of how technology works on the part of the general public. This provides great power to manipulate, censor and mislead.

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