As the decade dawned, it was cheaper and easier than ever before to create and transmit a text, an image, or an audio or video recording. That transmission, in turn, had a bigger chance of reaching an audience. People didn’t waste that opportunity: Both the volume and the variety of widely available speech exploded. Whole new media ecosystems appeared. Budding musicians did an end run around the record labels, sketch comics did an end run around cable TV, and YouTube DIYers did an end run around licensed plumbers and repairmen. In the political world, the Overton window widened and a flood of oddball ideological tribes poured in—some of them rather unappealing, but that’s how it goes with unfettered expression.
That in turn provoked a backlash, and for the last several years we’ve seen a series of efforts to clamp down on all that uncontrolled chatter. There have been heightened calls for censorship from the left, right, and center, sometimes directed at new sorts of speech (bots, code for printing weaponry) but usually aimed at targets that feel familiar (sex-work talk, terrorist propaganda, hate speech, marchers wearing masks), sometimes so familiar that they’re moldy (pornography, Russian subversion). Beyond that, there was a broader feeling of brittleness around all that unfamiliar or unpleasant expression; even critics who would never call for censorship sometimes went overboard when attributing ill effects to speech they disliked. Meanwhile, the biggest conduit for all those emerging ecosystems of expression—the internet—seemed to be growing not just more censored but more centralized, more surveilled, more controlled. That was true not just in purely online spaces but in the dissident movements that at times use cyberspace to organize and communicate. Around the world, it became clear that it wasn’t just protesters who were imitating and adapting each other’s tactics; the regimes that they were protesting watched and learned from each other too.
All of that raises the question: Did we just witness Peak Free Speech? Will the first half of this decade be remembered not just as a time when speech was less fettered than ever before but as a time when it was less fettered than it will ever be again?