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Eric Schmidt wants 'spell-checkers' for hate and harassment

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Alphabet's executive chairman seems to align himself with others who want to tinker with the Internet.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Eric Schmidt

Will a spell-checker help the Web?


Stephanie Pilick/dpa/Corbis

I don't think it's just the presidential elections. There seems an even greater volume of nasty invective around these days.

Countries are threatening other countries. Individuals are threatening whole religions.

Then there's the Internet. It seems a repository of ever nastier inner thought that hasn't been thought through. Should something be done about it?

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and executive chairman of its parent Alphabet, believes it should. He wrote about "building a better Web" in an interesting opinion piece published in The New York Times on Monday.

The word "better" is always one to struggle with. Who decides what's better?

Still, Schmidt made a couple of interesting statements. "Authoritarian governments tell their citizens that censorship is necessary for stability," he wrote. "It's our responsibility to demonstrate that stability and free expression go hand in hand."

The concept of free expression is tantalizing. It's one of things we all want to think we believe in, until someone says something we really don't like.

Even Schmidt has lines he'd like to draw. "We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media -- sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment," he added.

Some might wonder that this would be a slightly authoritarian limit to free expression. How might it work anyway?

Would it be like your smartphone, which insists you mean "duck" every time you write "f***"? Would there be code words, automatically inserted by code, that would substitute for the real words you want to say? Or would certain words and phrases simply be eliminated?

Moreover, is Schmidt's view also the view of Google? A company spokeswoman couldn't offer me comment. However, I understand Google doesn't have any plans to introduce such spell-checkers into its products.

Schmidt also said that terrorist social media accounts should be targeted and their videos removed. "Without this type of leadership from government, from citizens, from tech companies, the Internet could become a vehicle for further disaggregation of poorly built societies, and the empowerment of the wrong people, and the wrong voices," he wrote.

Schmidt's idea shows an increasing enthusiasm by those in power to tinker with the Web's essential bald openness.

Why, on Monday leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke in South Carolina about fighting Islamic terrorist group ISIS by shutting down parts of the Web.

"We're losing a lot of people because of the Internet," he said. "We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what's happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way."

"Pass me the spanner," said Bill. "I'll just close up this here Internet tube."

It all comes down to one question: Whom do we trust to do the censoring, the closing and the creating of spell-checkers?