September 11, 2013

The Atheism+ Block Bot vs. Banning Books

Banned Books Week 2006
Banned Books Week 2006 (Photo credit: wanderingone)
When someone tries to ban a book, they are seeking to prevent others from reading it. Such a person considers the contents of the book to be so objectionable - maybe even dangerous - that they wish to prevent others from reading it. Others cannot be trusted to read the book and form their own opinions of it; they should not have access to the book at all. For the parent trying to have a book banned, it is not enough that his or her child will not have access to the book; other people's children must not have access either.

Even if we were to set aside any suggestions of censorship from this discussion for a moment, I think we could agree that our book banning stance seems difficult to reconcile with freethought or skepticism. Freethinkers and skeptics typically encourage people to ask questions, think critically, try new things, and ultimately make up their own minds. Depriving someone of the raw data that would be used to make up one's mind seems inconsistent with skepticism and freethought. Moreover, our book banning scenario smacks of an argument from authority (i.e., I know what's best for you, and I've decided you shouldn't be exposed to that material).

How is trying to ban a book different from what the Atheism+ Block Bot does? Banning a book is designed to restrict access for everyone and not just those who opt-in. The Block Bot does not restrict access except for those who actually use it. See the difference? Granted, this difference might be undermined to some degree if the Block Bot increased the likelihood that those of us placed on it would have our Twitter accounts suspended. After all, that would involve restricting access for everyone by making the account unavailable. I am not sure if the Bot has this effect or not.

Now consider those who have opted-in and are using the Block Bot. We have established that they are doing so voluntarily and that that this is an important difference (assuming that use of the Bot does not result in accounts being suspended). What sort of experience does the Bot provide for those who are using it? Users are allowing others to decide for them what sort of content they see (or don't see) on Twitter. They do not necessarily know who is on the block list or why. How consistent is this with freethought and skepticism? Not very.

Wait a second! Don't we all pick and chose who we spend time with, who we read, who we interact with on social media? Yes. And don't most of us decide periodically not to interact with certain people? Absolutely. So how is what the Block Bot does really that different from what most of us do anyway? Here's the key: most of us make our own decisions about who to interact with and who to block with data. We do not block someone until we have a valid reason for doing so (e.g., a negative experience with them). We do not rely on others to do this for us, and we do not do so preemptively. That is, we block when we have a good reason to do so and not before. The Atheism+ Block Bot takes this out of users' hands, deciding for them that the content of those of us on the list is so objectionable that it should not be viewed.

Update: Since this post appeared, Damion (Background Probability) has indicated that he has evidence of multiple Twitter accounts being suspended after being blocked by the Bot.

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