Nicolae Rusan

What is our right to communicate?

The internet opens up a new scale of communication - how should we navigate these new challenges?


Started on February 2, 2021

I wrote this post in Feb. 2021, but didn’t publish it at the time

The web allowed everyone to speak to each other, and to as many people as would listen. When everyone can speak, who should we listen to?

I feel like there’s a a question underlying many of the issues that we’re facing these days, and that is: what is our right to communicate with one another?

Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the 2016 US election, that event and the subsequent four years, including this COVID pandemic, have brought to the forefront several important issues. These issues include questions about the nature and role of disinformation, the impact that social media and businesses based on advertising business models might have on us, and how all these elements interplay with our notions of democratic society.

The movie The Social Dilemma (2020) tries to touch on some of the problematic aspects of social networks based on advertising revenues, and how in using these products our attention becomes the primary commodity those social networks sell, along with precise data that might help advertisers more precisely decide who to communicate with, and how to specifically change their mind about something: whether they’re looking to convince us to buy their product, or to change our beliefs about a particular issue.

And in this way, the lines between advertising and communication are blurred. Whenever you communicate with anyone, to some extent, you’re each shaping each other’s beliefs and mental states. If it’s a one-way communication, as in often the case of advertising, then you don’t get to also shift the beliefs of the advertiser in that moment. Advertising is just a form of communication, where an advertiser is able to pay a service to broadcast their message to a larger audience of people on that service.

And the problematic aspects that The Social Dilemma raises about paid communication (i.e. advertising), likely go beyond just communication that is paid for. I think the issues we’re going to have to think through go beyond setting guidelines for advertising. There’s a deeper question about what is our right to communicate with one another, and in turn what is our right to change each other’s minds? What are our rights and protections when it comes to each other’s time and attention?

I keep coming back to this overarching question, that for me contains in it a ton of nuanced sub-questions, perhaps because in asking “what is our right to communicate with each other?” We’re really asking something about how it is to co-exist.

Here are a few of these subquestions, and though I frame them as questions about rights, they may be better framed as questions of what our norms ought to be (since what are rights except norms we’ve chosen to enforce?):

These questions have always been around, but the advances of the Internet over the last 20 years have heightened them to an entirely new level.

Let’s think about it first on the personal level: I can now at any time reach into my pocket, and make a phone call to any of my friends, interrupting whatever they’re doing unless they’ve put their phone on do-not-disturb. Over time, I now end up having more and more people that I could contact. Even when I move to another city, changing my geography doesn’t mean losing the opportunity for staying in touch with someone.

Discussing this with a friend he was saying that the experience of being able to contact anyone ends up for him as feeling bad that you’re not contacting all these people who you could be contacting that are just a phone call away.

I can hop on to Twitter, or Facebook, or Clubhouse, and start to consume the ideas and beliefs of all the people who are communicating there, some of whom are paid to communicate some message (e.g. Influencers), along with consuming other communications clearly marked as advertising.

Overall, the lived experience for me just feels like I’m being communicated with a whole lot more than I was before.

Even in you reading this essay, I’m now communicating with you and having to ask myself, what is my responsibility in this communication to you? What is my intent? Is this worthwhile, or am I being a poor custodian of your time and beliefs, and my time and beliefs.

If you were communicating with me, and you started to say things that I disagree with, that I think might be harmful to others, what is my responsibility to compassionately communicate with you and to try to change your mind?

I think these questions are going to become particularly salient as we head into this next chapter.

Consider just the last few months:

At its root, the Internet is about communication. It is about the ability to scale up, speed up, and broaden access to communication, and with communication, the ability to change beliefs. It has amplified our communication to such a magnitude that it brings into sharper resolution some of the questions about what norms we ought to establish for how we communicate with one another.

What types of rights and norms ought we to strive for in our communication with one another? How ought we to collectively form our beliefs, and what do we mean when we say “collective”, and “collective beliefs”?

Related to these questions, something that comes up for me, is thinking what about how we communicate compassionately, and how compassionate communication is related to building trust, mutual understanding, and in-turn compassionate coexistence, so that we ease the problematic nature of some of the questions above. Prepare yourselves for some compassionate advertising :).


At a deeper level, it is also interesting how advances in technology itself will dictate what options we might have available to us in terms of privacy and censorship of communication.

It is interesting that the resolution of fundamental questions in computational complexity theory, and cryptography, will have a bearing on what types of privacy and censorship are possible. A while back I learned about Impagliazzo’s Five Worlds, which is a paper where the author, Russell Impagliazzo, describes how depending on the outcome of certain unsolved questions in complexity theory, there are five possible worlds we might end up where we have differing degrees of ability to communicate privately (and also to solve computationally hard problems) Computational Complexity: Impagliazzo’s Five Worlds.

On a different thread, another interesting threads around disinformation, and our ability to decipher the “truthfulness” or “reliability” of some information, is Brandolini’s law (Brandolini’s law - Wikipedia): “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.”