Do machines speak? If so, do they have a constitutional right to free speech?
This may sound like a fanciful question, a matter of philosophy or science fiction. But it’s become a real issue with important consequences.
In today’s world, we have delegated many of our daily decisions to computers. On the drive to work, a GPS device suggests the best route; at your desk, Microsoft Word guesses at your misspellings, and Facebook recommends new friends. In the past few years, the suggestion has been made that when computers make such choices they are “speaking,” and enjoy the protections of the First Amendment.
This is a bad idea that threatens the government’s ability to oversee companies and protect consumers.
The argument that machines speak was first made in the context of Internet search. In 2003, in a civil suit brought by a firm dissatisfied with the ranking of Google’s search results, Google asserted that its search results were constitutionally protected speech. (In an unpublished opinion, the court ruled in Google’s favor.) And this year, facing increasing federal scrutiny, Google commissioned Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, to draft a much broader and more elaborate version of the same argument. As Professor Volokh declares in his paper: “Google, Microsoft’s Bing, Yahoo! Search, and other search engines are speakers.”
To a non-lawyer the position may sound bizarre, but here is the logic. Take a newspaper advice columnist like Ann Landers: surely her answers to readers’ questions were a form of speech. Likewise, when you turn to Google with a question, the search engine must decide, at that moment, what “answers” to give, and in what order to put those answers. If such answers are speech, then any government efforts to regulate Google, like any efforts to bowdlerize Ann Landers, must be examined as censorship.
And that’s where theory hits reality. Consider that Google has attracted attention from both antitrust and consumer protection officials after accusations that it has used its dominance in search to hinder competitors and in some instances has not made clear the line between advertisement and results. Consider that the “decisions” made by Facebook’s computers may involve widely sharing your private information; or that the recommendations made by online markets like Amazon could one day serve as a means for disadvantaging competing publishers. Ordinarily, such practices could violate laws meant to protect consumers. But if we call computerized decisions “speech,” the judiciary must consider these laws as potential censorship, making the First Amendment, for these companies, a formidable anti-regulatory tool.
Is there a compelling argument that computerized decisions should be considered speech? As a matter of legal logic, there is some similarity among Google, Ann Landers, Socrates and other providers of answers. But if you look more closely, the comparison falters. Socrates was a man who died for his views; computer programs are utilitarian instruments meant to serve us. Protecting a computer’s “speech” is only indirectly related to the purposes of the First Amendment, which is intended to protect actual humans against the evil of state censorship. The First Amendment has wandered far from its purposes when it is recruited to protect commercial automatons from regulatory scrutiny.
It is true that the First Amendment has been stretched to protect commercial speech (like advertisements) as well as, more controversially, political expenditures made by corporations. But commercial speech has always been granted limited protection. And while the issue of corporate speech is debatable, campaign expenditures are at least a part of the political system, the core concern of the First Amendment.
The line can be easily drawn: as a general rule, nonhuman or automated choices should not be granted the full protection of the First Amendment, and often should not be considered “speech” at all. (Where a human does make a specific choice about specific content, the question is different.)
Defenders of Google’s position have argued that since humans programmed the computers that are “speaking,” the computers have speech rights as if by digital inheritance. But the fact that a programmer has the First Amendment right to program pretty much anything he likes doesn’t mean his creation is thereby endowed with his constitutional rights. Doctor Frankenstein’s monster could walk and talk, but that didn’t qualify him to vote in the doctor’s place.
Computers make trillions of invisible decisions each day; the possibility that each decision could be protected speech should give us pause. To Google’s credit, while it has claimed First Amendment rights for its search results, it has never formally asserted that it has the constitutional right to ignore privacy or antitrust laws. As a nation we must hesitate before allowing the higher principles of the Bill of Rights to become little more than lowly tools of commercial advantage. To give computers the rights intended for humans is to elevate our machines above ourselves.
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, is the author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.