Friday, April 18, 2014

xkcd is wrong about "free speech"

The usually awesome XKCD cartoon opines that "the right to free speech means only that the government cannot arrest you for what you say". This is profoundly wrong in every way that something can be wrong.

The First Amendment to the constitution says that "Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech". This wording is important. It doesn't say that congress shall pass laws protecting our speech, but that congress shall not abridge it. "Free speech" is not a right given to us by government. Instead, "free speech" is a right we have -- the stipulation is only that government should not infringe it.

The forces that want to restrict your speech include others than just government. For example, cartoonists around the world draw pictures of Jesus and Buddha, but do not draw pictures of Mohamed, because they are afraid of being murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. South Park depicted Jesus as addicted to Internet porn, and Buddha with a cocaine habit, but the censors forced them to cover up a totally innocuous picture of Mohamed. It's a free-speech issue, but not one that involves government.

In oppressive countries like Russia, the threats to speech rarely come directly from the government. It's not the police arresting people for speech. Instead, it's the local young thugs beating up journalists, with the police looking the other way.

In the United States, society has gone overboard on "political correctness" that silences speech. A good example in cybersec community is when the "Ada Initiative" got that talk canceled at "BSidesSF" last year. That sort of thing is very much a "free speech" issue, even though the official government wasn't involved.

The "responsible-disclosure" debate is about "free-speech", where some try to use the hammer of "ethical behavior" to control speech. Last night I tweeted a line of code from the OpenSSL source code that demonstrates a hilariously funny bug. I was attacked for my speech from OpenSSL defenders who want me to quietly submit bug patches rather than making OpenSSL look bad on Twitter.

That's why so many of us oppose the idea of "responsible-disclosure" -- the principle of "free-speech" means "free-disclosure". If you've found a vulnerability, keep it secret, sell it, notify the vendor, notify the press, do whatever the heck you want to do with it. Only "free-disclosure" advances security -- "responsible" disclosure that tries to control the process holds back security.

Such debates do circle back to government. For example, in the Andrew 'weev' Auernheimer case, the government cited Andrew's behavior (notifying the press) as an example of irresponsible behavior, because it didn't fit within the white-hat security norms of "responsible-disclosure". Andrew was sent to jail for speech that embarrassed the powerful -- and it was your anti-free-speech arguments of "responsible-disclosure" that helped put him there.


Certainly, it's technically inaccurate to cite "First Amendment" rights universally, as that's only a restriction on government. But the "free speech" is distinct: you can certainly cite your "right to free speech" in cases that have nothing to do with government.


Update: I shoulda just started this post by citing the Wikipedia entry on rights: "Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom". In other words, it's perfectly valid to use the word "right" in contexts other than "legal".

Update: I mention South Park because the XKCD mentions "when your show gets canceled". If your show gets canceled because nobody watches it, then that's certainly not a free-speech issue. But, when your show gets canceled because of threats from Islamists, then it certainly is a free-speech issue.

8 comments:

Flavio Martins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted Lilley said...

So what precisely are you saying should be prohibited, and how?

devid john said...

Download captain america 2 : www.captainamerica2thewintersoldier.com/

teh_painter said...

Yeah his message was incoherent...just a bunch of buzzwords linked together. Bonus irony points if this post gets censored

Pawel Krawczyk said...

Dear Errata Security, actually in Russia threats to free speech do come from the government directly in the form of Roskomnadzor. This agency issues censorship orders against media and Internet websites. During Crimea crisis a number of Russian news agencies were blocked this way, such as Grani.ru.

Scott said...

"South Park depicted Jesus as addicted to Internet porn, and Buddha with a cocaine habit, but the censors forced them to cover up a totally innocuous picture of Mohamed"

This isn't a correct interpretation of censorship, though. The creators of South Park have a contractual agreement with their distributors that give Viacom the right to refuse any of the work presented to them. That's not a freedom-of-speech issue, that's contractual law.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are quite able to go ahead and create some other cartoon property with all the depictions of Muhammad that they want and release it via the web on servers that they host. The point of the XKCD strip in question is that no-one else is required to give them that platform as part of their free speech rights.

"Last night I tweeted a line of code from the OpenSSL source code that demonstrates a hilariously funny bug. I was attacked for my speech from OpenSSL defenders who want me to quietly submit bug patches rather than making OpenSSL look bad on Twitter."

Were they able to make you take the post down? Did Twitter remove the post in question? Even if Twitter _did_ do that, they would still be within their rights to do so. You gave them that right when you agreed to their terms-of-service.

Are the OpenSSL folks able to prevent you from hosting a blog where you shout out the vulnerabilities to the world? If they can get a judge to shut down your blog, then potentially, yes, you have a 1st amendment freedom of speech issue. But even then we've acknowledged that not all forms of speech are protected in such a way. Yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie house is the most often used example.

backrow said...

Most of what you cite has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with economics of speech.

Anyone can say/write/draw anything they want using their own resources.

When using resources belonging to others, those others have the right and obligation to stipulate what is acceptable.

PERIOD. END. OF. SENTENCE.

Unknown said...

I think you are mostly confusing the right to free speech with some "right to *publicized* speech", or a "right to be heard".

Does anyone really think we have such a right? I don't.