The Intolerable Speech Rule: the Paradox of Tolerance for tech companies

A woman dressed in 19th century European black clothing sits in a defiant pose with a sword across her lap. Letters at the top say in Latin
Use the sword on behalf of justice only

On Monday, I’ll be giving a talk at Airbnb about the Paradox of Tolerance and how tech companies can use it to decide whether or not to allow white supremacists to use their products. Here’s the TL;DW version:

The Paradox of Tolerance says that a tolerant society should be intolerant of one thing: intolerance itself. This is because if a tolerant society allows intolerance to take over, it will destroy the tolerant society and there will be no tolerance left anywhere. What this means for tech companies is that they should not support intolerant speech when it endangers the existence of tolerant society itself.

I propose the following rule for tech companies to use in deciding which content to host or clients to support.

The Intolerable Speech Rule

If the content or the client is:

  1. Advocating for the removal of human rights
  2. From people based on an aspect of their identity
  3. In the context of systemic oppression primarily harming that group
  4. In a way that overall increases the danger to that group

Then don’t allow them to use your products.

This isn’t the only rule you should use – you should use this rule in addition to all your existing rules against spam, fraud, illegal activity, etc. Implementation is key. Be proactive in seeking out violations, have a diverse empowered decision making team, and collaborate with outside experts.

Learn more:

Slides (Google Slides) (PDF) (PPTX)


Examples of tech companies implementing the Paradox of Tolerance

Tech company terms of service relating to the Paradox of Tolerance

Article on the Paradox of Tolerance as it applies to white supremacists in the U.S.

Wikipedia entry for the Paradox of Tolerance

Talk on legal talismans (misuse of “free speech” and similar legal terms) by Kendra Albert (transcript)

How to organize tech workers to change company policy by Liz Fong-Jones

Policy and code of conduct consulting from ReadySet and Y-Vonne Hutchinson

Freeze peach comic by Naoise Dolan

Freeze peach pendant by Gretchen Koch

Freeze peach graphic by Stephanie Zvan