How censorship in Silicon Valley is killing free speech
As the role of Silicon Valley further permeates into the vast expanses of our daily lives, so does the spotlight on the decisions it makes regarding who can use their platforms and in what manner. There's no denying that, as private companies, these entities have a legal right to uphold policies which ensure fair and equitable access for their users.
But there's one particular arena that these tech supergiants are wading in which is getting increasingly murky, and ultimately, quite troubling. I'm referring to their insistence on setting the goalposts for protected and censored "free speech," if that term can even be considered as having its structural integrity still intact.
Free speech, especially in the digital realm which we rely on more heavily by the day, is continuing to erode right in front of us. I touched on this topic in an op/ed here years ago, in which I outlined the dangers of allowing behemoths like Facebook to play modern day Corporate Thought Police.
A lot has changed since that piece went live... the 2016 election 'fake news' controversy; the mass purging of 'hate speech' pundits from online platforms; and a continued push for these giants to speed up and automate online censorship.
Contrary to most of the elites in Silicon Valley, as an IT pro and IT business owner myself, I've consistently railed against these fresh pushes into further censorship. I argued that it was not the answer in response to the horrible tragedy that was the Dylann Roof shooting in 2015. And I took a similar (albeit, not always popular) stance about allowing the vermin of the Islamic State to share their vile, corrupt messaging freely online.
Yes, the above entities represent some of the most abhorrent viewpoints and beliefs known to man and I don't share or perpetuate any of them personally. But time and again, I've always believed that full exposure and sunlight are the only ways to combat extremism and hatred -- not censorship.
Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, proudly said that the only acceptable remedy for that which we consider evil speech is simply "more speech, not enforced silence."
And I'm far from the only one advocating against online censorship by Silicon Valley. Organizations like the ACLU are actively involved in standing against Facebook and related firms from furthering their pushes to censor content & personalities, for similar reasons as I continue to raise.
Not only is the furthering of corporate censorship for online platforms doomed to fail in the long haul on principle, but its implementation thus far been far from objective -- and worse, with zero basis in legal precedent or grounding.
How does Silicon Valley justify placing lines in the sand that even its most prestigious firms can't universally agree on? Good question.
Silicon Valley (Still) Has No Unified Standard for Free Speech Guidelines
One of the largest glaring issues with how Silicon Valley is approaching censorship is the fact that the goalposts being set by firms are all over the board, with little industry-wide discussion on approach and limits, and other sensitivities for how such an important task is to be accomplished with transparency and due process.
So what has censorship in the modern age for the Facebooks and Twitters of the world devolved into? Siloed decision making by secretive "boards" that have limited diversification of background and worldview, all pushing ever-changing directives out to technical teams which must implement these wishes into algorithms for their respective platforms.
Yes, at a 10k foot view, that's the most common protocol for how censorship is implemented as a matter of policy for the tech giants. If this shadowy process doesn't raise an eyebrow, it darn well should.
This backroom-dealing, 'smoke and mirrors' approach carries numerous shortcomings, many of which fuel the endless debates by online mobs about who should be banned next and at what threshold. For one, algorithms do not have the innate capability to make nuanced decisions on topics where gray areas exist.
In example, machine learning may see incendiary language excerpts from something like Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, in purely black and white terms. But a white supremacist using such quotes in perpetuating extremist beliefs, and someone merely plucking language from the book to use in fostering open debate are on two different ends of the moral spectrum.
The same goes for numerous other gray areas. How about the famous "Napalm Girl" photo from the Vietnam War? Facebook, according to its existing policies, removed postings of the photo before an outcry forced them to reverse their decision. The photo clearly includes depiction of child pornography in the strictest terms, but on the other hand, is of critical historical importance and from most of the modernized world, gets a pass on these grounds.
Yes, the above example of the "Vietnam Girl" incident for Facebook represents one in which their human censors erred in applying legitimate censorship. An algorithm didn't bungle that one. But this exposes another, more troubling tentacle of the free speech crisis for tech firms: the fact that they have no unified standard on speech guidelines, censorship parameters, and acceptable content.
Not only this, but they lack any kind of basic ground rules or mutual understanding on any framework that could be used for the basis of inter-corporate free speech policies.
As such, we have a wild west in Silicon Valley where individual firms are their own judges, juries, and executioners in how and where free speech policies are concocted and applied. Arbitrary? Yes. Legal? Yes. Fair? That's up for interpretation.
Curious at how scattered and vaguely defined some of the largest tech giants' free speech guidelines are?
Facebook, for example, has the following statement on hate speech listed in its current Community Standards rulebook:
We do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence.
Twitter takes a longer, more creative approach to hate speech in its Rules posted online:
You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.
Further blurring the lines, while YouTube has a similar stance towards hate speech as Twitter, it put up a blog post in June 2019 that offered the following insight towards what it calls 'borderline content':
In addition to removing videos that violate our policies, we also want to reduce the spread of content that comes right up to the line. In January, we piloted an update of our systems in the U.S. to limit recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, or claiming the earth is flat.
Three different companies, with three fairly different policies, all created in their own glass bubbles by executives or boards which placed an arbitrary finger in the sand. And herein is where the questions begin to surface about where fairness is appropriate when parties get censored.
Who decides what crosses the line of hate speech? How do you define and police borderline content? And what's to prevent these lines in the sand from shifting based on political or financial or similarly non-objective litmus tests?
None of these tech behemoths has a great answer for the above concerns. Their usual response is to put out a press release with the usual corporate schmaltz about how they're constantly internally discussing and evaluating their policies, feedback from the community, etc. In case you need a translation, that means they're moving their needles based on intangible factors that are not based on any inherent framework, but instead upon nascent winds coming from many directions -- including pressure from digital 'mob rule.'
And as such, you can see why there is such an uproar when personalities get banned from these platforms. Not only are differing justifications used on who gets banned, but the parties playing jury to such incidents are rarely transparent, and recourse for those affected by wrongful censorship is usually minimal and obscured in corporate red tape.
Getting banned is easy. But the path to get unbanned is purposely complex and mired in endless Y-intersections.
If the purpose of such free speech policies is meant to provide cleansed online forums for discussion and thought, it's only really furthering a public belief that certain parties are being targeted while others are allowed to thrive. Admittedly, conservatives take a large brunt of the blowback from these policies, but lest we forget that these same misguided forces will come for liberals and other groups of users once the corporate censorship police decide to adjust their nets in other directions.
US Courts Universally Uphold Hate Speech Rights -- Why Doesn't Silicon Valley?
Unlike other countries where hate speech and similar discourse is banned, the USA has consistently upheld via our courts its dedication to protecting most forms of speech, including hate speech, as inherent freedoms for our citizens.
Why, then, does Silicon Valley insist on playing the role of a speech gestapo that has no relatable foundation in our established legal precedent?
This is a question which really boggles the mind. Firms like Facebook and Twitter bask in the limelight of being considered the modern day public forum; one where users can come and express differing viewpoints for the purpose of furthering discourse on a multitude of topics and interests.
In the public square of the pre-digital realm, we had no interference from government limiting speech or "borderline content." The upheld belief has always been that open discussion will foster the proliferation of ideas and speech which is accepted as moral, ethical, and sound in fact -- while allowing sunlight to expose and limit the reach of everything else.
But Silicon Valley has fallen into an interesting paradigm as of late. They love being the established new age public square, but want to also play arbiters in what speech crosses their barriers, in what frequency, and by what individuals.
Conservative activist and comedian Steven Crowder is one of the many personalities under the radar of Silicon Valley's red pen. Much of his content is thought provoking, and involves unfiltered exchanges between the public and himself on numerous controversial topics. Here, he debates the merits of why hate speech doesn't actually exist as a legal concept. Still, YouTube decided that his channel would be demonetized for breaking acceptable content guidelines. (Source: YouTube)
It's also quite perplexing that these same companies built their business models, and current day corporate empires, on a free and open internet model. Fast forward to today, with their current too-large-to-fail status, and these are the same information superhighways that they're attempting to censor, bit by digital bit.
If you look at the ever-evolving stances of Facebook's Zuckerberg and Twitter's Dorsey, they're dancing around public statements on controlling content that frequently gets jumbled together as "hate speech." And again, this goes contrary to what America's founding fathers intended when the 1st Amendment was drafted.
While uncomfortable and unnerving at times, this kind of speech is exactly what the framers wanted to protect in open discourse. Other forms of speech which are not considered incendiary inherently need little protection. This is one of the prevalent underpinnings of why the framers staged the 1st Amendment, and the Bill of Rights for that matter, in the manner they did. They knew full well that uncomfortable opinions were the ones which would be first to hit the chopping block by an ominous government (like the one they ran from).
I am not at all surprised that Silicon Valley's largest online platforms have no common understanding about what speech limits to instill and police. That's because without a historical basis, nor legal precedent, around how and where to justifiably govern free speech on their platforms, they will continue to shoot from the hip.
They'll continue this dangerous slide using smoke and mirrors in secret board rooms to push rules that go directly against the established norms and spirit of the basis of American free speech rights.
In an effort to claim they are protecting their users, the unintended consequences go far beyond. And we have authoritarian governments across the world cheering on Silicon Valley as they continue to champion censorship models that are beloved in places where internet freedom is at its lowest.
Silicon Valley's Arbitrary Red Pen, Not Foreign Governments, Are Our Biggest Digital Threat
So much attention has been paid to Russian meddling in our 2016 elections, that while important, doesn't represent the largest threat to our society and free speech rights. Most valid reporting is accurate in stating the extent to which Russian actors exploited holes in Facebook to milk a narrative they wanted to push.
But in an effort to counter such activity, and cast a wider net to include "borderline content" and "fake news" and "hate speech" in the continued cleansing of these platforms, the counterpunch effect is reverberating too far in the other direction.
Today, Facebook and Twitter and the like are using gray area language to justify the banning or demonetization of the likes of Alex Jones and Steven Crowder and Louis Farrakhan and similar personalities. Even when the same individuals are banned or censored, the supporting evidence cited between the platforms doing the censoring are rarely if ever unified and transparent.
OK, so you may agree with their actions because you fall to the left or right of the spectrum, and personality X or Y goes against your beliefs. Or they may have said something you didn't agree with.
But consider the dangerous slippery slope when Silicon Valley's arbitrary red pen slides into banning or censoring entire news publications, or politicians, or political action groups? If they can find valid reasoning now that falls within their "usage guidelines" to censor fringe actors on the periphery, what's to say they won't take this further when the opportunity arises?
Such is the exact problem with allowing these giants to set speech boundaries in the sand -- ones which are dictated by corporate figureheads only accountable to shareholders. Shareholders that, for the most part, are driven by the almighty dollar and not societal concerns like open digital discourse and internet freedom.
Further muddying the water are situations like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who a few years back was making the rounds across the US like a politician gauging interest for a campaign run. What kind of unprecedented power could be unleashed by a corporate leader with hopes of entering politics, that has direct insight into who can say what on his digital public square?
Mark's current sights have been set on righting the wrongs of political advertising on Facebook from the past few years, but there's no guarantee this couldn't be taken to further, more self-serving interests.
Silicon Valley's largest digital platforms have already proven time and again that they are fully ready to bow to the whims of censorship whims of outside powers while chasing new cash flows. Google has been largely absent from China for the past decade, but reports about its secretive Dragonfly project came to light last year which would have allowed Google to return to the mainland with strict oversight and censorship boundaries implemented at the behest of the Communist government.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg chillingly said, "The question of what speech should be acceptable and what is harmful needs to be defined by regulation, by thoughtful governments." Of course, Mark has so many examples of this being such a glowing gold standard across the globe. From China to Russia to Cuba, it has exclusively been such 'thoughtful governments' which are exemplary of internet policy gone wrong. Do we want Silicon Valley to allow these same parties to set the template for appropriate free speech? I surely hope not. (Image Source: Sputnik News)
And while Facebook holds a similar still-banned status within China, it too may kowtow to authorities by allowing Communist party-approved actors to get direct hooks into posts by mainland residents per reporting from 2016. Anything that comes across the wire by citizens discussing banned topics like Muslim detention centers, Hong Kong freedom protests, or posts criticizing the government in general, could be easily killed off and these instigating parties tracked in databases one can easily assume.
It doesn't take that much of a stretch of the imagination to see the dangerous precedent that is being set by sitting idly by while Silicon Valley tramples on established free speech norms. Between part acceptable usage guidelines set by shadowy oversight boards, and part mob rule pressure that these firms have capitulated to, the net effect has been nothing short of a stench-filled disaster.
Politically and ideologically disparate figures being censored or blacklisted not because they violated any local laws. Merely because they exercised their guaranteed 1st amendment rights and fell outside of the arbitrary boundaries concocted by the tech giants.
It's not the enemy from abroad that will deal the most lasting damage to our society and its inherent, inalienable rights. It's those from within our borders which have far greater punitive leverage that can slowly destroy our freedoms, our democracy, and other vestiges of society -- the more intrinsic they become in our daily digital lives.
Consider that dark reality the next time you cheer the next Alex Jones getting banned on Twitter or Facebook.
When you can't stand up for the rights of those you don't necessarily agree with now, there likely won't be anyone left to stand up for you when all of them have been engulfed by the inevitable and unaccountable blacklists.
Derrick Wlodarz is President and Founder of Des Plaines, IL (USA) based Managed IT Service firm FireLogic. He has 14+ years of IT industry experience spanning the private and public sectors. His firm specializes in providing SMB clients with managed IT support, consulting, and training. Derrick is a long-serving member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. In addition to being an IT industry speaker, his work has been academically published in The Journal For Social Era Knowledge. You can reach him via email at [email protected].