Restricting Speech: Governments Censor, Companies Annoy

by on November 10, 2009 · 24 comments

buck buck buck

Flock Fox Dr. Fox buck

Lucky lucky buck buck buck buck Flock!

Lucky you! thought you!

thought this stupid program!

talking a!

mother Fokker!

should ship ship ships shipped!

In case you were wondering, that’s me trying to swear using Nuance Communications’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the leading voice recognition software. It’s bad enough that I can use my left wrist to type anymore because of cartilage damage without pain, and won’t be able to at all for the next few months after my wrist surgery next week. But does Nuance really have to try to clean up my potty mouth?

Now, many users would at this point cry “CENSORSHIP!” They might even suggest that the government should do something about this “violation of my First Amendment rights!” But this is a great example of the difference between what governments often do—block or restrict speech, however indirectly, through the coercive power of the state, ultimately backed by force of arms (real censorship!)—and what private companies sometimes do: hinder my ability to send or receive information that want to sanction. Simply put, government has the power to put me in jail for saying George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words,while companies like Nuance just make it (somewhat) harder for me to “express myself” using the wealth of my oh-so-extensive vocabulary.

In Dragon’s case, it’s a fairly simple matter for me to train the program to recognize the words above (and a few other colorful expressions). Sure, maybe it’s “unfair” in some sense that I have to go to this hassle, while my God-fearing neighbors don’t. But, hey, life is unfair! And if Nuance really made it prohibitively difficult for me to teach Dragon to curse, well, it’s not as if I am entitled not to have to type out four letter words with my good hand! The wonderful thing about markets is that companies who make software that just won’t do what consumers want (assuming that is legal) will probably lose more business than they gain by attracting puritanical customers. But Nuance does have a right to exclude predefined vocabulary—and probably made a perfectly rational business decision to do so: (the number of customers who complain about having to train the program to recognize their favorite expletives) x (the intensity of their annoyed complaints) is probably significantly less than (the number of customers who complain about having the program insert dirty words into, say, inter-office communications) times (they are outraged at the problems such mistranscriptions could cause).

In other cases, the trade-off may be less overt, but the important thing is to recognize the rights at play whatever private actors attempts to restrict speech:

  • Private actors have a right to do with their property as they see fit—because that’s what property means: never having to say you’re sorry (although it’s often smart business to do so anyway). No matter how “dominant” (i.e., popular) a company’s service may be, it is not a monopoly!  “Monopoly” is what government has—the exclusive right to provide a product or service in an particular area—or what it often creates by granting privileges and distorting markets through regulations and subsidies—something very similar in the hands of private actors.
  • Customers have the right not to use a particular product, rather than the right to use a particular product as they see fit.
  • Customers also have the right not to be misled by deceptive marketing about a product. So if a company claims their product will let you curse till the cows come home, and doesn’t, that’s where the law should step in. But the law doesn’t need to achieve 100% complete disclosures (e.g., a fully comprehensive list of the things Dragon will and will not allow you to do) because market incentives adequately, if not perfectly, discipline how companies like Nuance behave: It’s not surprising that nuance chose not to easily facilitate my swearing, but also not to block it altogether by preventing me from training dragons to transcribe my profanities. Sure, it’s possible that some user might be really pissed off that the product he spent money on won’t do what he wants as easily as he wants, but if Nuance is smart, they will avoid the reputational costs of further passing off an unhappy customer by just issuing him a refund—especially in the era of blogging, where a single pissed off customer can cause huge damage (such as the famous “Dell Hell” blogger).

So, spare me all your “flocked-up” theories of the “positive First Amendment” as not a shield against government action but a sword by which government must ensure that the Nuances of the world don’t oppress me with trivial annoyances. Let’s get back to fighting the very real censorship rampant around the globe (and right here at home), such as the imprisonment of Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer. Free Kareem!

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