The title of this Slate article is Why Robots Deserve Free Speech Rights. but it really focuses on the “free speech rights” of twittebots, those spammers of the hashtag stream created by ‘marketers’ trying to capitalize on the latest trend. The question goes beyond the twitter bots and could be one we JUST MIGHT explore in an upcoming edition of iSDaily Tuesday on the iPonder segment. Do spam bots, and beyond that, robots, deserve free speech rights?
Journalists and researchers have spent a great deal of time sifting through the returns and data (or ashes, depending on your perspective) of the 2016 presidential election, looking for lessons to take into elections this year and in 2020. As the Times’ report and Hamilton 68 suggest, one of the major revelations has been the extent to which autonomous bots created content on social media, particularly Russia-created bots that flooded Twitter and Facebook leading up to Election Day. The degree to which they (and their cousin, fake news stories) influenced the election is unknown, but the intent to do so appears all but certain.
In the wake of these revelations, some writers have alleged that tweets from bots are not speech but “speech ricochets” that “represent a form of technology that can be weaponized.” To protect democracy, these critics argue, we need to silence the bots.
This debate is part of a larger conversation. As we have more regular interaction with speech from autonomous devices and artificial intelligence like Amazon’s Alexa, more people are beginning to wonder if the First Amendment is (or should be) so broad that it protects human and nonhuman speakers alike. It might sound a bit ridiculous. But how we make space for robot and bot speech will be a fundamental issue in 21st-century discourse. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook and Twitter, which can ban autonomous accounts in their user agreements. But it is still unclear what local, state, and federal governments can do to autonomous speech from A.I.-enabled bots.
Those who call Twitterbots weaponized technology openly compare them to situations where speech was lawfully prohibited—the conviction of labor leader Eugene Debs for using his speeches to obstruct the draft, the prohibition of words and phrases that incite an immediate breach of the peace, etc. To the best of my knowledge, there have not yet been any serious bills proposed at the federal or state level that attempt to ban speech from bots or other types of A.I. However, given the history of unconstitutional attempts to limit or control speech in the United States—including prohibiting hate speech, permitting courts to shut down newspapers viewed as “malicious, scandalous and defamatory,” and criminalizing the distribution of anonymous pamphlets—it seems inevitable that there will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be governmental efforts to ban A.I. speech. (A.I. speech refers to any speech created autonomously by a machine or program without direct human supervision or control. Experts and engineers in the field may object to describing some Twitterbots as A.I., but the broad definition is appropriate here.)