Free Speech, Top Stories

The Death of the First Amendment in Cyberspace

In 1996, cyber activist John Perry Barlow addressed national governments in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; a radical call for complete online freedom. “I declare,” he wrote, “the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”

In the early 2000s, it seemed as if Barlow’s Declaration was becoming a reality. In 2006, Time magazine named “You”—that is to say, all of us—as their Person of the Year:

It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web.

Social media became instrumental in the toppling of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen and, in 2010, it was Mark Zuckerberg’s turn to be awarded Time‘s Person of the Year. A couple of years later Twitter confidently declared itself  ”The free speech wing of the free speech party.” This commitment to the global spread of radical free speech and openness was specifically informed by the First Amendment. Through the embrace and global reach of Silicon Valley, it seemed for a brief moment as if American free speech exceptionalism would go viral and impose a Libertas Americana upon cyberspace.

But less than a decade later things look radically different. In a prevailing atmosphere of anxiety, the digital promised land has turned into a dystopia of surveillance, disinformation, trolling, and hatred. As evidence of Russian interference in the American presidential election emerged, the platforms once hailed as the global infrastructure of freedom and democracy are now widely seen as the enemies of these values. In April 2018, the New York Times called Zuckerberg “an Enlightened Despot,” and argued that Facebook and Twitter had been “turned into engines of deception and propaganda.”

Democratic governments have responded to these developments with increasingly draconian measures, prompting tech giants to take desperate rear-guard actions that abandon the imperial project of spreading global civil libertarianism online. In 2016, companies like Facebook and Twitter agreed a voluntary code of conduct with the EU under which they have to remove “hate speech” within 24 hours. A similar agreement relating to fake news has also been adopted. Most recently, the EU has announced new laws obliging tech companies to remove “terrorist content” within an hour or face fines of up to four percent of global revenue.

But EU member states also restrict online speech through national laws. In 2017, Angela Merkel’s Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act, which requires social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk fines of up to 50 million EUROs. In July, the French Parliament passed a law aimed at combatting fake news. The British government is reportedly planning an online censorship regime with a regulator empowered to sanction social media platforms that fail to remove illegal content such as hate-speech and terror propaganda, as well as ”enforcing new regulations on non-illegal content and behaviour online.”

These measures have put pressure on social media companies to establish sophisticated online censorship. In Germany, Facebook operates a “deletion center” staffed by more than 1,200 “content moderators.” In 2017, Facebook removed 288,000 posts a month globally for violating its hate speech standards. And, most recently, independent anti-establishment content “created to stir up political debate” has been purged.

In a 2017 hearing in the British Parliament, Twitter officially renounced its non-negotiable commitment to free speech. A Twitter VP announced that the platform was ditching its “John Stuart Mill-style philosophy,” because “it’s no longer possible to stand up for all speech in the hopes society will become a better place….And we do have to take steps to limit the visibility of hateful symbols, to ban people from the platform who affiliate with violent groups—that’s the journey we’re on.” And so, in September 2018, Twitter adopted new guidelines prohibiting “dehumanizing speech.”  “Be Sweet when you tweet” is the new motto. Google too has acknowledged the fundamental shift towards restricting more content in an internal memo entitled “The Good Censor,” leaked earlier this month.

In short, Big Tech has pivoted from the stubbornly principled “viewpoint neutrality” of the First Amendment towards the European approach of “balancing” free speech against competing interests. This includes exempting specific categories such as “hate speech” from protection altogether. Big Tech’s Great Purge does not violate the First Amendment. Americans remain free to post controversial content that would violate European hate speech laws online. They just can’t do so on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. But since 68 percent of Americans use Facebook, 72 percent use YouTube, and 24 percent use Twitter, often to read and comment on news, the shrinking space for online content and consequent muddying of the distinction between public and private space is likely to limit the practical effect of the First Amendment even so. From being the colonizers of cyber space Americans are now being colonized by the standards adopted in Brussels and Berlin.

Should we care? Anyone with a social media account has witnessed or experienced appalling racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Social media has also been fertile ground for terrorist propaganda. Apart from trolls and bellicose keyboard warriors, few will miss the abuse which inevitably fills up threads and comments. Might not the European “balancing act” be a welcome correction to the American model which all too often appeals to the lowest instincts of raw human tribalism? Perhaps in theory. But once the limits of free speech are determined by subjective terms such as “hate speech” or even “offense,” the red line will inevitably be drawn in an inconsistent and arbitrary fashion, targeting speech that clashes with the most deeply held beliefs of those in power.

Among the examples of speech which the European Court of Human Rights has found to fall outside the protection of free expression are advocacy of boycotting Israel, Holocaust denial (but not denial of the Armenian genocide), Islamism, comparing Islam with terrorism, offending the religious feelings of Christians and Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism (including satire), glorification of terrorism (including satire), and homophobia. This has given European states a wide margin to prosecute social media posts deemed offensive or hateful.

In 2016, British police detained and questioned more than 3,300 people for “grossly offensive” comments on social media. That’s roughly nine arrests a day. In 2018, a British YouTuber was convicted for posting a comedy video in which he taught his girlfriend’s pug to perform a Nazi salute and respond to anti-Semitism. Soon clicking through to online terrorist material may be punishable with up to 15 years of prison, even if you have no terrorist intent. The dangers of arbitrary and inconsistent viewpoint censorship are only increased when enforced by global tech companies using opaque procedures that fall woefully short of due process and are insensitive to local context, including sarcasm and humor.

This problem is already manifest in current practice. While it is likely that far-Right extremists bear the brunt of online purges there have been numerous examples of social and racial justice activists caught up in Facebook’s dragnet. Moreover, it is not difficult to find puzzling examples of inconsistent enforcement. While far-Right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been thrown off Facebook, numerous groups dedicated to Stalin remain. For instance, the 3,600 members of “In Defence of Stalin” claim to be the “world’s largest cyber community of Pro-Stalin people committed to refuting propaganda & lies concerning J. V. Stalin.” Is it more reprehensible to deny the horrors of Sandy Hook than to deny the horrors of Holodomor and the Gulags?

You could still argue that these are the unavoidable consequences of trying to police the speech of a billion people and that, such bugs notwithstanding, the European model is preferable to the American alternative. But there are good reasons to fear that the “balancing” approach will result in laws against “hatred,” “offense,” and “extremism” functioning as a trojan horse for ever more restrictive layers of censorship by actors with no commitment to free speech.

Europe may have scored a significant political victory by imposing its standards of free speech on Silicon Valley. But it is also true that, in general, European geo-political influence is in decline and democracy is in “recession.” This has had consequences for free speech too. In 2016, Germany gave in to Turkish demands that a German comedian be charged with insulting President Erdoğan. And the German Network Enforcement Act has been copy-pasted by Russia, where it will almost certainly be used against dissidents and critical media. China is increasingly seeking to censor online content outside its borders and has successfully requested YouTube remove several videos not available in China, and forced German carmaker Daimler Bentz to apologize for an Instagram post quoting Dalai Lama.

Google’s apparent willingness to give up on almost a decade of principled resistance and surrender to Chinese demands for censorship in order to gain market access is another example of how authoritarian states might be able to impose their standards on Big Tech. In a letter to Congress, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that Google is “committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression…as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate. We seek to strike the right balance in each context.” With countries like China calling the shots, the balance is certain to tip in favour of censorship. The European approach will provide Big Tech with a convenient alibi and flexible framework for removing content threatening their commercial interests in illiberal jurisdictions.  So, even when guided by the best of intentions, the pivot from free speech “viewpoint neutrality” to “balance” may well end in a firewall. 

 

Jacob Mchangama writes and narrates the podcast “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.” He is also the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights, including in the Washington Post, the NY Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @JMchangama and @CAPD_freespeech

 

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Filed under: Free Speech, Top Stories

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Jacob Mchangama is the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights including in Washington Post, NY Review of Books, Wall Street Journal Europe and The Economist.

47 Comments

  1. In a recently-leaked Google document (which the company conceded is genuine), Google executives mulled the idea of making “safety and civility,” rather than “free speech,” the priority of the company’s search engine and other services. In the memo, free speech was described as “utopian.”

    Why the apparent sudden change of heart at a corporation that had from its outset loudly declared its passion for unhindered speech? It’s clear from this and other leaked information that it was the outrage and horror in Mountain View over the election of Donald Trump that caused this sea change. In other words, Google’s interest in relaxing its commitment to America’s most fundamental right was almost entirely due to its partisan and ideological bias.

    What the leaked document reveals is a company that appears willing to entertain the idea that it and the other gatekeepers of the Internet should shape the kind of information available to all of us, giving them the ability to remove or make difficult to find information which they deem to be “uncivil.” However, Google has a very particular (and very politically-biased) idea about what type of speech is “uncivil,” one not shared by tens (if not hundreds) of millions of its users, such as myself. The fact that a company which doesn’t share the values of so many of the people in the world now has something close to a monopoly over how much of the information out there is made searchable and readily available should be terrifying to all of us.

    The problem with censoring or controlling the availability of information has always been the following: If each citizen doesn’t get to decide for him or herself what he or she will read or see or hear, then who gets to decide for them? Who gets to make the decisions about which information is made available and which is not? Google and the other Internet gatekeepers arguably have more power over what we read than any government in the world. Is it any less Orwellian when a few for-profit corporations get this much control over information than when a government does?

    • MichaelJ says

      “Is it any less Orwellian when a few for-profit corporations get this much control over information than when a government does?”

      A good question. It could be argued that it’s less Orwellian and more Huxley-esque, which is to say that, rather than the hard totalitarianism of Nineteen-eighty-four, the censorship of Google, Facebook, etc. reflects the soft totalitarianism of Brave new world. The former is directly political and violent, in the mold of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The penalties for dissidence under hard totalitarianism are imprisonment, torture and death. Soft totalitarianism is socially enforced and the penalties for dissidence are similarly social in nature, typically taking the form of shaming and ostracism.

      • X. Citoyen says

        Nineteen-Eighty-Four is the better book; Brave New World the more prescient.

      • George G says

        @ Michael

        very interesting point you make. I suppose Soma and the “two minute hate” fulfil a similar purpose in each fictional society, to deaden politically inconvenient emotions by suppressing (BNW) and purging (1984)

        • George G says

          @ Michael

          I accidentally hit post before I’d finished my thought, which was to say:

          Facebook / Twitter have found a way to combine Soma and the 2 minute hate-

          users get their dopamine hit by repeatedly expressing their dislike toward their particular hated out-group. It never quite satisfy enough as a suppressant or a purge so users just keep coming back for more.

          I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the function of this is nothing to do with free speech, communication etc, but to get users to pay attention to advertisements. There seemed to by a scandal brewing a while back that facebook had massively over estimated both the quantity of users and the effectiveness of their ads in targeting users, but it seemed to just blow over?

          • FB and Twitter are not governments. They aren’t even national entities, but global ones.
            That speech fits the laws of the land is rather mundane and expected. You really think nations suffer the laws of others? Corporations making business decisions is not anti-free-speech from a government’s coercive perspective.
            There is the new notion of hate speech, which is absurd because it criminalizes some perceived intent of words rather than because the worlds themselves incite violence. But there’s no person banned on FB or Twitter who can’t put the same content on their own web site, available to the world to view (and perhaps a crime in some countries and the EU).

      • BrannigansLaw says

        @MichaelJ You’re analogy is slightly inaccurate. Nazi Germany (as awful as it’s war time activities were) was nowhere near as totalitarian as the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany’s totalitarianism was more similar to “Brave New World” whereas the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism was closer to “Nineteen-Eighty-Four”.

        • MichaelJ says

          @BrannigansLaw,

          I know what you mean: If you weren’t part of a persecuted minority (e.g., Jewish or homosexual) and kept your political nose clean, you could have had a fairly safe life in pre-war Nazi Germany without too much to fear from the Gestapo. The same was not true of the Soviet Union; the NKVD sent people to the gulag for any reason or no reason. I’m also aware that Orwell’s principle inspiration for Nineteen-Eighty-Four came from Stalin’s regime. I would argue though, that Nazi Germany was still ‘hard’ totalitarianism in the sense that political dissent was very dangerous to one’s health.

          In a true Brave New World scenario, no Gestapo or NKVD is necessary; all that is required to keep people in line is social conditioning. That’s the direction in which I see modern identity politics taking us at present. The fact that overt censorship by Google and Facebook is in play – and that discussions like this are still taking place on a public forum – shows that we haven’t got there yet – and hopefully we never will. Even so, it seems to me that the mechanisms of social exclusion and public shaming are being much more readily and effectively used to shut down dissent than they were even five years ago.

    • TarsTarkas says

      A pertinent quote from a long-dead author regarding ‘civility’ and ‘safety’:

      “Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!”

      Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

  2. X. Citoyen says

    Good piece. I agree with NRC (above) that the victory by Trump and other (what shall I call them?) “non-consensus parties” in Europe is fueling the gate-keeping campaign.

    Time to start using alternative search tools. They’re out there.

  3. William E. Kimberly, Sr. says

    How much of the push to impose these fines on these companies is fueled by the wish to get some of their money? My bet is: A Lot! Also: Why this aspect isn’t even mentioned?

  4. The internet is a new phenomenon in our society, in that it is a public space that isn’t publicly owned.

    The internet functions like a highway, public square, marketplace and agora for ideas, yet is entirely walled off into private compounds, and one needs to pay a token and submit to arbitrary rules in order to participate.

    • Jack B Nimble says

      @Chip

      You have a good point, but I would argue that the larger problem is privatization of formerly public spaces. Examples preceded the internet–they include enclosed shopping malls with private security and where political activity is prohibited or restricted, conversion of formerly public highways to private toll roads, cutting the IRS budget so that people have to use private tax experts, and so on.

    • Somewhat true, but you can use library computers and Internet, or use them while at school, and these require nothing more than your effort. If you can afford a device, then there are many other places where you can speak freely (zero cost, no token needed) via their wifi networks.
      To suggest that freedom of speech meant anything more than being able to speak freely, not funded to speak, this is entirely normal and acceptable.

  5. > In the early 2000s, it seemed as if Barlow’s Declaration was becoming a reality.

    It was, and still is, and will continue to be. Most people who got on-board with social media were suckered into a crappy corporate internet where companies profited off of the websites they built. But the underlying network of computers connecting to one another remains largely impossible to regulate unless ridiculous measures are taken. Just because “most” people use these services which are susceptible to regulation and censorship and market pressure doesn’t mean they constitute cyberspace.

    There will always be free speech online — the fact that most people don’t know what address to type into the URL bar to find, and that one day search engines might hide results for venues providing it doesn’t mean it’s anywhere except for computer-illiterates.

  6. Robert Dupuy says

    Whether talking about the spread of religion in ancient times or how cancer spreads in the body, there is a science to networks. And I mention this because ideas, too, travel along networks, but the medium has changed. Society has been transitioning, from when ideas literally spread from town to town as people travelled on foot or horseback, to having a broadcast network, radio and tv, newspaper…to what we have today.

    I may not be adding much to the article except to say, take a more expansive view. Here we are, a new type of network, and yes, it is fundamentally democratized. Anyone could publish a story, you need not work for a broadcast network, much less set off on horseback ala Paul Revere.

    Facebook is not a publisher, but a service. The news, or rather the fake news was coming from the true publishers….you.

    Yes, time magazine was right, it was you. And sometimes Russia. But it turns out you both suck.

    A fractured society sets people down their own paths. Mostly what people believe is fable. We can hope it is based in science somewhere but it isn’t believed for that reason. People construct complex interrelated views within a social construct, and now those structures are an ever more fractured self selected cultural groups.

    Frankly we should be concerned about Facebook, the corporation, but Facebook the platform had to be concerned about the fact that the self publishing mob as news source wasn’t good for society. Turns out people like to post imagined nonsense as fact and to believe the same.

  7. johno says

    It all seemed so perfect at the time. In the last 30 years, it was us computer geeks that had made the biggest difference… had pretty much killed censorship, not by protesting, but by putting so much out there that it was impossible to censor. We brought down repressive regimes by making this internet thing so valuable they couldn’t keep it out of their country, and didn’t tell them about this freedom of speech thing built into it. The repressed people could finally get an unimpeded view of the world… and it made a difference.

    It was our practical joke on all the humanities majors who used to get on us in college for ‘not being involved’ in important causes.

    We thought it was funny.

    And then, the tiny brained wipers of other people’s bottoms brought their bigotry and closed minds in, and instituted an intellectual dictatorship. The process flows like an angry mob, tearing into anything that impedes it’s path to… well, like all angry mobs, they don’t even know where they are going. They gravitate towards whatever triggers their ire, attacks anything that shows weakness, much like a pack of wild dogs.

    It’s hatred for the sake of hatred.

    This mob reminds me of PETA: an organization that may have started with a noble idea, but has morphed into a bully that accumulates money and power by only attacking large corporations. Global warming, which is rooted in fact, has been exaggerated wildly as a vehicle for the accumulation of political power. They’re not even trying to solve the problem any more, they are drugged up on dictating to others.

    A few of us older people remember the liberals we once admired, the people who would quietly bring up the aspects we hadn’t considered, and would live the principles of fairness to all, even when it hurt. I remember an incident where the ACLU sent a lawyer to argue for the right of an Illinois Nazi group to march. They sent a Jewish lawyer. And he won the case. Perhaps he changed their minds just a bit in the process. That’s what being a liberal once was – persuasion through example. Martin Luther King lived the principles of nonviolence, during that time. Today, Al Sharpton profits from exaggerated accusations.

    My, how times have changed.

    A few of us still hold the ideal that the unimpeded flow of ideas is the savior of humanity. And the mob rewards us with a sobriquet: the ‘intellectual dark web’, as if there’s something wrong with meaningful debate, respectful exchange of thoughts, and thinking instead of screaming dogma.

    What passes for a ‘liberal’ today is angry, vengeful, intolerant, and shows no respect for the principles they claim to follow… witness one of the high priests of political correctness, Elizabeth Warren, found to have been gaming the affirmative action programs she championed to ‘help the downtrodden’ (and a few rich white people, too). Hard on the heels of ‘always believe the survivor’ in the Kavanaugh hearings, comes the pretender to the throne, Hillary Clinton, dismissing her predator husband’s accusers as consenting adults. Always believe the survivor… that advances your agenda. If they don’t, they’re lying through their teeth.

    I believe that’s what disturbs me the most: the failure to hold oneself and one’s chosen leaders to the high principles they attack their opposition with.

    Out of the Vietnam era of political turmoil, came a saying: The end does not justify the means. It was about how those guiding principles should apply to everyone, and what happens when they are chanted but not adhered to. If you abandon principle in your pursuit of what you believe to be a noble goal, then you become what you abhor, and so does your once noble goal.

    We paid a terrible price to learn that lesson.

    It appears that the current generation will have to learn that same lesson… the hard way.

    • Truthseeker says

      Johno – this is an excellent comment on a thoughtful piece.

      The underlying problem is that Google and Facebook acquired power but did not acquire the requisite responsibility. Good power is responsibility. Bad power is tyranny. They have power without the self- or externally enforced responsibility so now they are acting as tyrants.

      Speech has to be free because without free speech you cannot think because you think by speaking. Hate speech may be offensive and should be challenged, but it should not be silenced. We grow by challenging ourselves and ideas not by hiding behind our feelings and hoping the sand we bury our heads in will protect us.

      • johno says

        Yes, that is the case. As geeks, we were essentially apolitical… we didn’t have time for that rubbish, we deal with absolutes.

        Along the way, we found that dealing with absolutes showed us that cultural differences didn’t matter. Personal proclivities didn’t matter…. if you’re into high tech, you are surrounded by some very strange people, that can do some amazing things. You learn to discard the differences, and focus on the commonality. That’s diversity by disregarding non essential factors.

        All we cared about was how well you pursued the art, what you could do, what solutions you came up with. We respect that person because of what they could do, and nothing else. True equality… an absolute we can understand. Why would anyone think any other way?

        Yet, somehow, the erroneously abstract concept of political correctness, with it’s bigotry, double standards, and censorship, has crept in. Where did that come from?

        In our world, judging a person by any other standard than capability doesn’t compute. That’s a 404 page not found, or a null pointer exception. The geek concept of absolutes tells us… political correctness will not work.

        We do wish more women would get into tech. Come on in, you may find our social awkwardness to be rather quaint, in its innocence.

    • Damian O'Connor says

      Excellent stuff – although ‘the end doesn’t justify the means’ came around long before Vietnam. Quibblle, I know. Sorry. What worries me is exactly what you state; that assertion becomes fact, that accusation becomes proof of guilt and politics is no more than a lynch mob. I see it in younger people and it is terrifying.

      Damian O’Connor
      Author of ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa.’

      • johno says

        Perhaps it’s because I came of age at the tail end of the Vietnam era, I remember clearly how the end did not justify the means, that you become your methods, regardless of how noble your original cause might have been.

        That’s what I learned from the liberals I once admired – character matters. Whatever you uphold, you must also live yourself. And you must remain on a quest for truth, even if you don’t like the answer you get.

    • @Johno — another example is labor unions. They started with an admirable goal and provided a well needed societal service offsetting the power of employer by offering equivalent power of labor. They have evolved into something which bears no resemblance to the roots. The current incarnation does nothing for the labor but suck away dues money to spend on high dollar “leadership” salaries, fancy office space, and political lobbying.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Not unless the censors prevent them from learning the lesson. That is the whole point of their censorship: To regain political power by any means necessary, and once having achieved that, ensure that they remain in power . . . forever. And don’t criticize, for they are young and wise, otherwise its to social oblivion and joblessness you shall go!

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @Johno

      Excellent comment and I hope that you’ll someday submit an article to Quillette for publication.

      As for your comments, politics it seems always seeks the lowest level. That’s not really changed in my life time. The inter webs have just made it more visible.

      My challenge is to get people to start looking at solutions.

  8. Self-described liberals and progressives were incredibly optimistic about the internet 20 years ago, telling us it would reveal that countless millions shared their views.

    That did not turn out to be the case, and they were shocked that so many people do not hold the opinions which are almost universal in their insular and naive strongholds of academia, the mainstream media and government employment.

    The only surprising thing about the wave of internet censorship sweeping the west is that it has taken so long to happen.

  9. Books to consider to understand how we got here…

    Surveillance Valley by Yasha Levine
    Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier
    They Know Everything about You by Robert Scheer
    Pentagon’s Brain by Annie Jacobson
    World Without Mind by Franklin Foer
    Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras
    Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin
    Googlization of Everything by Siva Vaidhyanathan
    The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
    Zero Hour for Gen X by Matthew Hennessy

  10. Farris says

    Social media platforms are like bulletin boards. The owner of the bulletin board gets to decide what is posted. Anyone one can write an opinion letter to The NY Times, but the paper is not required to print it. This is not to say de-platforming is a good idea but rather to point out that the 1st Amendment is not implicated.
    The vagueness of laws restricting “Hate Speech” cause them to act almost as Ex Post Facto laws. What was okay yesterday is now verboten today.

    By not remaining free and open to all, even the abhorrent, social media maybe creating its own demise. It is much easier to object to the camel’s nose under the tent compared to once the beast is fully inside. As governments intrude on businesses, compliance becomes a greater cost, impacting profitability. Of course that could be the plan and hope of these companies to eschew upstart competition.

    As difficult as it may be republicans must stand up for the rights of democrats and democrats for republicans, Muslims for Jews, Jews for Muslims, Christians for atheists and atheists for Christians and so on, even standing up for those who would deny us the same privilege. The prosaic victory of seeing one’s rival de-platformed will ring hollow when the Nazis come for him or her. And the irony will be that he or she will have set the precedent by not initially objecting.

    • Indeed, it’s wiser to not use such platforms. Why communicate with others “through a corporation” rather than person to person? Every posting is both an opportunity for social media to advertise to you, but everyone who reads your posting is also presented with such advertising, and of course both are fully tracked by IP and GPS when available.

  11. Caligula says

    What’s particularly infuriating is that the online platforms have no obligation to at least explain why one has been suspended or banned. It’s always something vague, “violated terms of service” or “violated speech standard” yet never specifics as to which post(s) were in violation (let alone why the material was considered to be a violation).

    The roots of the problem include:

    1. Users don’t pay for the service; therefore, they’re not customers (The customers are usually advertisers, or those who want user data for marketing purposes).

    2. Arrogance all the way from the top of the corporation to the low-level employees who arrogate to themselves authority to determine what may or may not be said, yet fail to consider their own biases.

    3. Governments can and do apply pressure, and the corporations lawyers often seek the safest harbors they can find.

    in any case, if governments are going to regulate these companies (as increasingly they are) they might start by requiring detailed descriptions of how terms of service were violated when users are suspended or banned, and some sort of appeals process.

    • Correct, the users are the product not the customers. The advertisers are the customers, buying the product (user info)

  12. Peter Kriens says

    Isn’t the primary problem that social media is largely anonymous?

    • Jack B Nimble says

      @Peter Kriens

      “Isn’t the primary problem that social media is largely anonymous?”

      The answer is NO, and thankfully the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of persons to be anonymous when expressing opinions. Folks in the US may remember that some of the pro-independence pamphlets in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War were written anonymously.

      Dark or anonymous money as political campaign contributions, on the other hand, is a huge problem in the US.

  13. Chad Jessup says

    New York Times called Zuckerberg “an Enlightened Despot,” and argued that Facebook and Twitter had been “turned into engines of deception and propaganda.”

    I will agree with that statement. Adherence to the principles of the First Amendment creates a strong country and citizenship. I have been branded as an uncaring immoral fascist for subsidizing so-called animal factory farming. I don’t need anyone’s oversight and protection from those Freudian projections.

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  15. “Is it more reprehensible to deny the horrors of Sandy Hook than to deny the horrors of Holodomor and the Gulags?”

    Misleading way to frame the debate. How many times in UK & USA [and in West] was civil liberty abused to curtail the rise of communism?

    Alex Jones went from a conspiracy theorist to state approved conspiracy theorist.

  16. estepheavfm says

    I have looked at the Alex Jones question and he is most certainly not “far right,” but rather close to a true commoner (rather than elite) centrist “classical liberal” position, and with regards to conspiracy theorist, there is a mix of solid important information overlooked elsewhere, sloppy conspiracy theorizing and what is being overlooked, solid detective/prosecutor/intelligence-agent style evidence-laden conspiracy theorizing. The latter is actually hugely important. The Watergate coverage and the Charles Manson prosecution are both famous examples of conspiracy theorizing taken to their completion. Thus, I must say that the label the author uses “far-right” to describe the controversial Mr. Jones is sloppy meme-parroting and is woefully uninformed, similar to the approach taken by those when they engage in knee-jerk, half-baked conspiracy theorizing.

  17. Filius Roma says

    The future will be that of a balkanized internet. These companies are international organizations and the reality is that as the world becomes more affluent the less important American users will become, and honestly, are currently becoming to these companies.It makes sense for Google, Twitter, and Facebook to cater to other countries sensibilities and their own interpretations of free speech if they are the larger user base. The only other option is to wall off the internet into regions. The US gets their own internet, Europe gets one, China already has one and maybe the Commonwealth countries can agree on one as well. To a certain a extent a balkanized internet might be for the best as nationalism starts to become the norm, other regions of the world will want less and less daily interactions with the other, lest they become “corrupted” by foreign cultures and world-views.

  18. It isn’t just google, twitter, etc. Without any sense of irony, the blog OpenDemocracy, just censored me because (as far as I know) I criticized Islamism. No slander or obscenity or harsh language was used. As a result, I no longer take OpenDemocracy seriously because clearly they have voluntarily CLOSED the doors to freedom of expression. Contrarywise, I heartily recommend and respect Quillette for its openness (as well as the quality of the writings).

    • Filius Roma says

      Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Quillette has only been rather slack with comments because it’s still a rather small site with not that much traffic as other sites. The test for Quillette will be if it gets big enough and the site gets inundadted with trollish commenters in abundance that say horrible things to get a rise out of people. My feeling is that even they will draw a line in the sand. Everyone has a limit, even freedom of speech purists.

  19. tech fairies and leftists in general are delusional about the world. i understood the world better at age 11 than they will ever, because i was forced to confront it, and was not sheltered from it. leftist fairies were not forced to confront reality. they share feelings, and then they have nothing left but their feelings. there is no thought. they are NPC’s. they don’t VALUE their OWN expression. they value only their acceptance by the mob. it’s disgusting and dystopian, but was obvious the very moment that social media consolidated into a handful of companies, and comments sections became extensions of those few companies.

    it was guaranteed, and it was obvious, and they didn’t know it, and you couldn’t have convinced them that this was the path they were about to follow no matter how hard you tried. you CAN NOT FIX DELUSIONS BY PEOPLE WITH POWER. they NEVER have to come to terms with their own flaws. delusional fairies believe they can craft a utopia through unlimited control, because they have offloaded their moral compass to others, and because they CAN’T ACCEPT THAT THEY TOO HAVE EVIL IN THEIR HEARTS. IT DOES NOT COMPUTE.

    they are not real Americans. they are anti-American. they have always been. now they *kinda sorta know it”, but they still don’t know themselves as well as I know them, and they never will. almost all will die still delusional, because they thinK they are good, and anything they choose to do with power is good.

    you can’t fix that. you can not. you can only hope to defeat it.

    there is no more important part of life than the freedom of expression. without it, there will be war, and it will be just, and the mass graves of delusional fairies who wanted to crack down on the free speech of others because they were weak-minded fairies who found themselves wielding power they had no natural business wielding will also be entirely just.

    this is the way of the world. ye fairies have brought this on yourselves.

  20. Bob C says

    The changes in policy by Google and Facebook were bound to happen sooner or later. Such platforms must always be vulnerable to commercial and legislative restrictions. The question is, how best should we respond? One solution is to campaign against the restrictions in the hope of reversing the tide. This may succeed in some parts of the world but it certainly won’t in others. A more promising approach is to develop new platforms that are proof against government interference.

    The world of file sharing may offer a clue. The rights and wrongs of this practice are not relevant to this discussion; the important point here is that for twenty years wealthy industries, governments, police forces and courts have used all their powers to stamp out illegal file sharing, and they have failed miserably. Their impotence is due largely to the evolution of file sharing technology. File sharing is no longer dependent on servers that can be shut down by order of a court. It relies instead upon distributed hashtags, which provide users’ desktop clients with all the information they need to upload and download files of any size or type. The hashtags are offered by thousands of sites and are accessible safely and anonymously through VPNs or the Dark Web. The sites are monetized anonymously through Bitcoin. The entire apparatus is impervious to official restraint.

    As commercial platforms become ever more restrictive, the exchange of opinions and information is likely to evolve in a similar manner. We will forsake dangerous platforms like Facebook and Twitter for safer environments offering anonymity to those who need it. Accessing such platforms may be awkward at first, but it will grow easier as the necessary apps and search engines are developed. Once fully established, such platforms may well eclipse today’s internet giants. This may sound like wishful thinking, but anyone old enough to remember Wang, Atari, Compaq and Palm will know how swiftly even the biggest players in the IT world can be snuffed out by technological change.

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