AI’s Silent Threat: How Artificial Intelligence Poses Risks to Free Speech and What Action is Needed


How will Artificial Intelligence impact free speech? Will it be a danger to freedom of expression?

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Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Amid the common fears surrounding artificial intelligence (AI), often focusing on killer robots and job displacement, a less-discussed peril looms – the potential impact on freedom of expression. The profound influence of AI on foundational legal principles safeguarding free speech requires attention. As society grapples with the disruptions caused by new communication technologies, particularly the advent of social media, concerns mount about the undermining of free speech protections.

The ongoing era is marked by the transformative power of social media, enabling new forms of community networking, surveillance, and public exposure. However, this transformation has also given rise to political polarization, global populism, and a surge in online harassment. In the midst of debates on free speech related to “cancel culture” and the “woke” mindset, the true impact of technology on the functioning of free speech laws often goes unnoticed.

The increasing role of AI presents a serious concern, providing governments and tech companies with the means to censor expression with ease, scale, and speed. This threat to free speech laws is explored in-depth in the new book titled “The Future of Language.”

The Fragile Balance of Free Speech

The legal framework protecting free speech in liberal democracies, such as the UK and the US, hinges on technicalities in responding to the actions of individuals. A crucial aspect of this system relies on the assumption that individuals can autonomously transform their ideas into words and communicate them to others. AI poses a threat to this fundamental assumption about human social behavior.

Many liberal societies uphold protections against “prior restraint,” blocking an utterance before expression. Governments, for instance, should not prevent the publication of a story but can prosecute it post-publication if it violates laws. AI’s potential to facilitate prior restraint challenges this balance by compromising the basic human ability to turn ideas into speech.

AI and the Era of Prior Restraint

Given the widespread use of technology in communication, AI can easily be employed to enforce prior restraint rapidly and on a massive scale. Recent legislative initiatives, such as the UK’s Online Safety Act, propose using AI-driven “upload filtering” to screen for offensive or illegal content. The practicality of handling vast amounts of content upload with AI is emphasized, but the risks lie in automated decisions that lack human experience, public scrutiny, and may tend to censor non-offensive or illegal content.

Legislation favoring content regulation through AI-driven automation undermines established legal processes that protect free speech. The notion that AI can replace these processes risks jeopardizing the very institution of free speech.

Preserving the Essence of Free Speech

Free speech, as grounded in specific legal processes, is not an abstract idea but a product of social and legal practices developed over centuries. Legislation promoting content regulation by automation dismisses these processes as technicalities, posing a threat to the entire institution of free speech.

While AI may play a role in monitoring online content, its use should not hinder society’s ability to engage in open debates about defining acceptable and unacceptable speech. Governments need to prioritize these concerns in their AI plans, ensuring that AI’s role does not constrain society’s ongoing discussions about the kind of community it aspires to build.

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