On Free Expression in Our Digital World

Richard Gingras
13 min readJun 26, 2023

The following address was presented at the Tech X — Future of News event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California on June 20 2023.
VIDEO of the talk is available here.

In 1791, when our First Amendment came to be, one could not have imagined what it would enable two centuries later. Back then, the printing press and the physical movement of paper was the most advanced way to share ideas beyond the scope of oral conversation. It could take weeks or months for a debate to reach and play out on the national stage.

Since then, our voices have carried faster and farther, first by telegraph, then radio, then television. Our understanding of the meaning of free expression expanded. The words and voices of those who had access to these technologies, which were a very few, carried more weight than ever before.

Until the 1990s, receiving information became increasingly easy, but publishing information continued to be the privilege of the few. For everyone else, expression was constrained to a circle of friends and coworkers. Maybe you could mail a newsletter. The public square was top-down, not bottoms-up.

The Internet changed that. It put a printing press in everyone’s hands. Friction was removed. Everyone had the opportunity to share their voice in the public square. And they did. You could reach every person in the world, IF they were willing to listen.

In the United States, the Internet is the First Amendment come to life — good, bad, or indifferent. It changed how people communicate, learn, sell, shop, influence, manipulate. It changed: how we are informed of the issues of the day, how we form opinions about the issues of the day, how we develop perceptions of the world around us — — and of each other.

In a world with unfettered free expression, the nature of both public discourse and political engagement changes

Yes, the Internet can elevate noble speech — that which appeals to our better angels and allows us to find consensus. But it also enables heinous speech, where anger, outrage, or self-righteousness can fuel a hatred of others. Sadly, it is far easier to stimulate an audience with intensely emotional content than with nuanced, complex analysis.

We are tribal beings. We think first through the filter of what our friends, our tribe, expects us to believe. We think first, as Daniel Goldman would expound, through a social construct. If the head of the tribe says the moon is green one would be inclined to agree lest you not receive a leg of the roasting calf that night.

Emotions tend not to prioritize accuracy. We easily fall prey to misinformation. These are not new trends. They did not begin with the Internet. They are not representative of any particular ideology.

From a mass media perspective, there is a core principle at play here. The mathematics of the information space has changed. As a society’s access to media becomes more open, the media space becomes intrinsically, mathematically, more divisive. We can choose, and do choose, the voices that reflect our view of our world, that reflect and confirm our biases — good, bad, and indifferent.

If you want to unify a society (all other principles aside), then the one-voice media model of an authoritarian will do the trick. Single source government media.

In the US in the 1960–70s, there were only four TV networks offering national news. The varying perspectives were moderated by the objective to appeal to larger, dispersed, and thus more homogenous audiences. It could enable the theoretically-unifying voice of Uncle Walter Cronkite.

In the 1990’s, the news networks on cable television split the unifying dialog quite forcefully. Hot, confrontational discourse was recognized for its audience appeal. We gave programs combative names like Crossfire.

Then the Internet happened. It broke the information space into a million shards. From 500 channels to more than a billion websites. The vast scale of the Internet challenges us like never before. It challenges our core understanding that supporting free expression means accepting the existence of expression we find uncomfortable, if not heinous.

Sadly, I fear, that principle is espoused by many but believed by few. I also recognize how the harm of disinformation may have shifted our perspective.

On Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning

The scale and complexity of the information space will expand further with machine learning and generative language models.

The technology is upon us. It has been for a long time. There are many language models, including many from sources we are not aware of. The need and the challenge is to develop better models to generate constructive content and help identify the malevolent content that will be created.

What we see today are, for the most part, language models, not knowledge models. They are predicting the next word in strings of text based on massive modeling of human expression.

That will change.

  • The language models will continue to evolve,
  • The language models will be mapped against known “knowledge” models,
  • And the various providers of those models will evolve how they analyze and interpret the queries each of these tools are asked to address.

That last vector is at least as important as the others. At Google, query understanding has been key to our work with Search for twenty-five years — understanding the query, determining how best to answer that query.

There is a big difference in answering a mundane query like “how many ounces in a cup” versus “how should we address climate change”. Matters relating to personal and societal health require special consideration. Matters of competing societal perspectives are more wisely addressed with diverse voices expressing diverse perspectives.

Will the many available generative AI tools further facilitate the creation of misinformation and disinformation? Assume they will. That should not surprise us given the progression we have seen with the Internet’s full embodiment of our First Amendment.

Yes, determination of the provenance of content, whether it be an image or a paragraph, will be key. In most cases, the more useful path will be determining the reputation of the source publishing that information. What signals measure a source’s reputation? How does context impact that assessment? How might we detect patterns of endorsement or, conversely, patterns of coordinated disinformation behavior?

This impact of generative AI on disinformation will add further urgency to regulate such behavior — which will engender its own set of challenging consequences

On AI and the Future of Local News

Like all technology, generative AI has value, even as it intrinsically has no values.

There is value in generative AI in the domain of local news. I’ve worked closely with emerging digital players. A particularly successful one is Jeff Elgie and his ten-year-old company Village Media in Canada. He now owns profitable, ad-supported outlets in more than 30 cities. His sophisticated platform supports more than a hundred partners.

Village has developed and is now testing Genertive AI tools to enhance newsroom output:

  • To suggest headlines optimized for search and social audiences
  • To craft story summaries for social posts.
  • To draft service journalism stories that follow their editorial policies and style drawn from a press announcement of a new restaurant or local business.
  • To draft narrative stories off of data, be that local police blotters or the box scores of high school basketball games.

Jeff’s objective is to expand how Village addresses the broad range of information desired by the communities Village serves. Jeff’s proven belief is that the key to trust and the path to sustainability is to become the “go to” information source for his communities. He believes his news sites must go beyond accountability journalism to gain broad audience reach, reach that will generate ad revenue to pay for the journalistic work and broaden the audience for accountability journalism.

I began my career in public broadcasting. My mentor was Hartford Gunn. He founded PBS. He inspired the Ford Foundation to do the seminal work that led to greater funding, including taxpayer support, for public media.

In that day of Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland”, the dire need for quality television was clear. But over time, Hartford struggled with public media being a silo of elite content for elite audiences. I share that concern.

I see many erstwhile digital news sources who focus solely on “serious accountability journalism”. That’s important. However, I fear that ignores the larger need to enrich the very fabric of a community by addressing its overall information needs. I fear if we don’t bridge the divides in our societies, the important accountability journalism will not be heard beyond the depths of its own silo.

On Journalism and the Crisis of Relevance

Journalism is facing a crisis of relevance. How can journalism play its role in enabling informed societies if its efforts are not perceived to be relevant and valued?

The Reuters Institute tells us less than 10% of our societies regularly consume what we might call serious news. Google tells us less than 2% of Search queries are about matters of news.

How can we reach those who don’t care or lost interest? We hear it from friends. They avoid the news. It makes them sad, or anxious, or fearful. They find solace in other ways, bingeing the latest on Netflix or feeding their addiction to TikTok. I do as well.

How might we adapt to the media forms our cultures are adopting?

The underlying assumption of a democratic society, and the profession of journalism, is this: IF we express our ideas with the right words and logical arguments, IF enough people read those words, THEN our democracies will be effective, the world will be a better place.

Again, the Internet and new media forms have rearranged social, political, and cultural structures. We see it with social media. We see it with short-form video. The messages get shorter. An inescapable progression, or digression, of how we communicate, how we understand the society we live in. We can’t ignore it.

Kevin Munger argues that forms of human conversation have an overwhelming influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.

I’m not suggesting TikTok and its peers are the future of journalism — though those media forms are sources of journalistic expression whether you or I are comfortable with that or not. We need to adapt to the language constructs of our time.

I recall what Neil Postman wrote about television in 1985: “We are amusing ourselves to death.” In that book Postman made the following observations about our cultures that resonate all too loudly today:

What George Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

As Huxley noted in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians always on the alert to oppose tyranny “fail to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In Orwell’s 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

It was one of the great Greeks who said our open societies, our democracies will be destroyed by the freedoms we enable. Wise words. Terrifying words. They hit a little too close to home.

The political sphere has adapted to the capabilities of the internet — to speak to voters, to build political alliances — far more quickly and effectively than the world of journalism. We see the impact around the world. The trend is concerning, as concerning to me as it is to you.

On Emerging Internet policy

While the journalism community strives to rethink its role in our digital societies, governments around the world are considering how to manage the information space in their societies. Understandable. However, it engenders a range of questions regarding the impact on a free press, on free expression, on the openness of the Internet itself.

I spent the last decade circling the world, working with journalists, working with publishers, working with various stakeholders on the future of news and evolving Internet policy. It has been an illuminating experience.

Nothing matches the challenging complexity our digital societies face. They are deep and structural, AND not necessarily what we think they are. We need to be thinking in years and decades, not weeks and months. Quick fixes are often no more than wishful thinking. At worst, they may result in damaging the foundations of the freedoms we seek to protect.

In my global travels I’ve learned many lessons. I’ve learned that perspectives on free expression vary. I’ve learned that approaches to governance in open societies vary. I’ve learned it’s unwise to suggest that our First Amendment’s codification of free expression is the only and correct one. I’ve learned it’s unwise to imply that the form of democracy we follow is the only and correct one. Societies are different. The challenges are different. There is no one-size-fits all set of answers.

As with the challenge of disinformation, we are as impatient as we are concerned. Exigency tends to bypass thoughtfulness. Dangerous given the paradoxical questions and untoward secondary consequences:

  • How does one manage free expression in a digital world?
  • How does one manage press freedom in a digital world?
  • That last question might better be stated as: What flavor of press freedom do you want for your society?

Does your flavor of press freedom work without open access to the distribution and consumption of information? Is it too late to reverse the “splintering” of the Internet into sovereign domains? Can we assure the continued openness of the Web while we fight over what books are allowed in our libraries?

Can press freedom be maintained as legal mechanisms are crafted to address misinformation? Where does one draw the line between awful and lawful in a divisive political world teeming with extreme parody and threatening outrage?

How do we address the overlap between what Jamie Susskind describes as the “hinterland of naughtiness” with a walled garden of legal expression? Can regulation work if exemptions are granted for politicians and media? Might such mechanisms be used against the press by less well-intentioned leaders? Does what we see in the US with politicians attacking disinformation researchers give further hint of this paradoxical challenge?

One public policy matter stems from the belief that the sustainability of journalism demands regulated financial support. Mechanisms have been implemented and others proposed that require certain intermediary players, such as social networks and search engines, to provide that support.

How do such approaches enable the press but not create political or legacy bias? Will any mechanism actually benefit quality journalism or will it preference embedded players? Will emerging voices be stifled by those embedded players?

Is your flavor of press freedom one where press freedom is managed by a press association? (as we see in some countries) Who is allowed to be a journalist? What are the journalistic principles they are asked to uphold? How does the association restrain or stimulate the emergence of new voices and new players?

Will remuneration rights benefit the creation of quality journalism for local communities or will it disproportionately support high-volume producers of a vast wasteland of digital content, including what many will consider misinformation?

Thomas Jefferson believed copyright was an insult to an advanced civilization (see end note 1). Jefferson felt that it should be our objective to share knowledge and to allow others to build on that knowledge.

In fact, what is the true nature of expression, be it art, or music, or the written word? Is human expression not in every instance a mashup? A mashup of what has been learned and expressed before? Is not journalism an ongoing progression of derivative works?

What might Jefferson think of all this today?

We are at a seminal point in the evolution of digital societies. We are at a seminal point in the role of the press in those societies. Are we considering these questions with the thoughtfulness and care they deserve?

One last observation

I’ve been reading a lot of history of late. Always interesting. Always the same. We decline every opportunity to learn from experience. Instead, we determinedly repeat, indeed acclaim, past misbehavior. It is rather damning of the future of our species

Today people speculate about the dangers of the Internet, or more recently, the dangers of AI. It would be more accurate to admit that we are concerned about the dangers of ourselves, not the machines. The AI models being built are learning from the vast expression of humankind, both principled and not, sometimes in quest of the common good, often not. But that is the history of our species, is it not?

Regulatory approaches can fall victim to the same dynamic. What is the underlying principle being pursued? To what extent are those principles truly about the common good versus specific or self-interests?

We must think beyond the memes.

We are at a seminal point in the evolution of our digital societies. We are at a seminal point in the role of the press in those societies. May we consider these questions with the thoughtfulness and care they deserve.

Richard Gingras is the global vice President of news at Google. In that role Gingras focuses on how Google surfaces news on Google’s consumer services and as well as Google’s effort to enable a healthy, open ecosystem for quality journalism. This includes the Google News Initiative, Google’s global investment in efforts to elevate quality journalism, explore new models for sustainability, and provide technology to stimulate cost-efficiency in newsrooms.

Gingras serves on the boards of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, the First Amendment Coalition, the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Gingras has walked the bleeding edge from satellite networks to search engines, from Apple to Excite to Google. He knows that innovation is hard. He readily concedes he’s made more mistakes than you.

End Note

  1. Thomas Jefferson believed that patents and copyright were an insult to an advanced civilization. He believed that ideas should be freely shared, and that patents and copyrights stifled innovation. In a letter to Isaac McPherson in 1813, Jefferson wrote: “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the mind. That which is here called copy-right is a right created by law, and is not natural. It is given for a limited time, and has never been supposed to extend to perpetuity. If it had, the earth would have been cultivated by one man, and science would have stopped with the first inventor.”