Monday, June 10, 2019

Policing Thought in Silicon Valley

It sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice. The “it” in that sentence refers to high tech censorship of content that Silicon Valley companies deem offensive or dangerous. And yet, it’s one thing to censor pedophiles and terrorists. It’s quite another to assume that anyone who does not toe the line on politically correct dogma is indulging in hate speech.

Niall Ferguson has a go at the problem in the Times of London:

Last week, YouTube announced that it was “specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status”. It swiftly became clear what that meant in practice. On Wednesday, as The New York Times reported, “numerous far-right creators began complaining that their videos had been deleted or had been stripped of ads, presumably a result of the new policy”.

As if to test YouTube out, a Vox journalist named Carlos Maza demanded that it ban Steven Crowder, the host of a raucous political show, on the grounds that Crowder had repeatedly made homophobic jokes about him. “I’ve been called an anchor baby, a lispy queer, a Mexican, etc,” Maza wrote on Twitter. At first, YouTube resisted, arguing that Crowder hadn’t violated the company’s terms of service, but soon — partly under pressure from other employees of Google, its owner — it folded, announcing that it had “suspended this channel’s monetisation . . . because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community”.

I knew nothing of either Maza or Crowder until last week. The point of this column is not to defend the latter or the obnoxious “Socialism is for fags” T-shirt he sometimes wears on his show. The point I want to make is the more general one that free speech on the internet is in free fall.

It’s one thing to censor content that promotes violence. It’s quite another to eliminate the thoughts of people who are obnoxious or offensive or whose politics lean toward the right:

Having previously confined themselves to removing paedophile and terrorist content, the big tech companies are now openly engaged in political censorship. Google admits as much: an internal presentation last March was actually entitled “The Good Censor”. What this means in practice is that tens of thousands of content moderators such as young Adam are deciding what you can and cannot see online.

An amusing thought, to say the least. We like to believe that Google has created magic algorhythms to make these decisions. When you pull away the veil-- think the Wizard of Oz-- you find that a content mediator, a young person, fresh out of college and indoctrinated to his gills, is pulling the levers:

Here’s another of them, talking to Silicon Valley lawyer Alex Feerst: “I was like, ‘I can just block this entire domain, and they won’t be able to serve ads on it?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes.’ I was like, ‘But . . . I’m in my mid-twenties.’ ” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s vision of the future was “a boot stamping on a human face — for ever”. In 2019, it turns out to be a geek hitting “delete” on a keyboard for ever.

Ferguson explains the legal problems here, all of which were created by Congress:

But none of this applies online, where (in the words of two legal scholars) the big tech companies can “act as legislature, executive, judiciary and press”. For they are doubly protected. First, the First Amendment is generally held not to apply to private companies. Second, section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act explicitly states that “interactive computer services” are not publishers (so, unlike newspapers, they can’t be held responsible for bad stuff that appears on their platforms), but they also cannot be “held liable on account of . . . any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that [they] consider to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” (so they can’t be accused of restricting free speech when they delete bad stuff).

There it is, these companies have been freed from responsibility. They cannot be held liable for their decisions and cannot be sued when a 24-year-old decides to shut down your business because you used a politically incorrect pronoun.

These days, in Washington, there is a great deal of discussion of “breaking up big tech” by resuscitating or reforming competition law. Other voices (including, suspiciously, the big tech companies) clamour for more regulation. But the free-speech crisis can and should be simply addressed. The network platforms handle far too much content to be effective publishers. They are entitled to section 230’s protection — but only if they uphold the diversity of discourse envisaged by Congress.

The alternative is to repeal section 230 and impose on big tech something like a First Amendment obligation not to limit free speech. Speaking as one of the last surviving members of the free-speech party, I’d prefer that second option. But either would be an improvement on that geek hitting “delete” on a keyboard for ever.


UbuMaccabee said...

Robert Epstein has been one of the best voices of exactly what Google and Facebook are up to and, more importantly, how they do it.

All of his work is worth a careful read. He's a liberal Democrat, BTW, but he understands the importance of having our entire public discourse online dictated by a couple of monopolist tech behemoths with no accountability or transparency.

Break them up.

trigger warning said...

We've been down Mr Niall's road before. It was the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, and its goal was to ensure "diverse" viewpoints. It failed miserably, and was repealed in the '80's. Thanks to its repeal, Rush Limbaugh (not a guy I personally listen to, BTW) isn't publishing a newsletter on a rattling mimeograph machine in his basement. :-D

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Silicon Valley’s disgraceful relationship with China.

That’s all you need to confirm Silicon Valley’s commitment to “free speech.”

It really is remarkable that an entire business based on the freedom to copyright and monetize lines of code cannot understand the importance of free expression.

For the good of the future world they’re creating, I would hope the Big Tech CEOs will be the first to volunteer for the gulag, but their lack of courage tells me otherwise.

Anonymous said...

According to their own description they need to ban themselves. They are definitely a group who thinks they are “superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion....”


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...


THEY are the cognitive elite. Their SAT and IQ scores tell them so. And their diplomas.

They know better than you. No discussion needed.

They have a seething rage at those who are not analytically intelligent. Because... what else is there?