Censorship

Government Is the Cause of—Not the Solution to—Online Censorship

As people worry about the net neutrality vote, public officials threaten our rights to free speech.

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Theresa May
MAXPPP/MAXPPP

While Americans are screaming at the Federal Communications Commission about their fears of private censorship if "net neutrality" goes away, the reality is that governments, in the United States and overseas, are consistently the driving force behind attempts to control what people are allowed to see and read online.

Some supporters of net neutrality have gotten it into their heads that an absence of government-enforced net neutrality will lead private internet providers to institute cost-based access gatekeeping that will serve as a form of censorship.

This belief is misguided (as Andrea O'Sullivan has explained very thoroughly), and yet the amount of public pushback FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is getting over the vote to overturn the "Open Internet Order" is much more furious than the response to lawmakers and politicians who openly demand authority to censor what is and is not permitted to be on the internet.

At the same time Pai and the FCC are making their decision, the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the United Kingdom is encouraging Prime Minister Theresa May to change the law so that it can hold social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google legally liable for content the country deems to be illegal.

Its latest report says:

We understand that they do not consider themselves as publishers, responsible for reviewing and editing everything that others post on their sites. But with developments in this technology, the time has come for the companies to take more responsibility for illegal material that appears on their platforms.

The report notes that the European Union's online commerce regulations treat these tech companies as "hosts," not publishers. The report also notes that Brexit is a thing, so after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, they're recommending British laws be changed to treat these tech companies more like media outlets.

"What could go wrong?" is baked right into this report, focused as it is on trying to control abusive and harassing speech directed at public officials, particularly members of Parliament.

Some of this communication includes threats of violence. The United Kingdom, however, does not have as broad a view of free speech as the United States and outlaws "hate speech," as well as speech that harasses or causes "distress" to individuals.

Even with the European Union's regulations, other countries aren't much better. Facebook has agreed to hire hundreds more people to respond to demands by the German government to censor and remove content they have declared illegal. Otherwise they could face huge fines.

Demands by governments to censor will expand if they're not stopped. Westerners tend to associate internet censorship with oppressive countries like China, forcing Apple to remove apps from its store. But focusing on the extreme ignores censorship threats on our own doorstep.

Danielle Keats Citron, in a policy analysis paper hosted by the Cato Institute, warns of the potential long-term consequences of allowing these European countries to set the terms for free speech across the globe:

Definitional ambiguity is part of the problem. "Hateful conduct" and "violent extremist material" are vague terms that can be stretched to include political dissent and cultural commentary. They could be extended to a government official's tweets, posts critiquing a politician, or a civil rights activist's profile. Violent extremist material could be interpreted to cover violent content of all kinds, including news reports, and not just gruesome beheading videos.

Censorship creep isn't merely a theoretical possibility—it is already happening. European regulators' calls to remove "illegal hate speech" have quickly ballooned to cover expression that does not violate existing EU law, including bogus news stories. Commenting on the hate-speech agreement, European Justice Commissioner V?ra Jurová criticized the Companies for failing to remove "online radicalization, terrorist propaganda, and fake news." Legitimate debate could easily fall within Jurová's characterization of hate speech.

Lest Americans think it can't happen here, it already is. Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown has warned that Congress is considering forcing online platforms and sites to take legal responsibility for any sex trafficking content. The FBI would be able to prosecute online companies if people use their sites for the purposes of coordinating sex for cash, even if that wasn't what the tools were intended for.

The consequences could be much more severe than people realize. If this immunity is compromised simply because the government wants to make it easier to prosecute somebody for certain types of crime, there's no limit to the exceptions lawmakers could implement.

Notoriously censorious Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has already openly threatened social media companies like Facebook and Twitter with a legislative response if they don't "do something" about social media political advertisements that apparently originated from Russia. This is a politician running for re-election next year threatening legal action against political speech that might threaten that re-election.

Tech companies, sadly, are easing their hard lines on protecting consumers from censorship. Why should they risk angering self-serving politicians when the public is cheering them on to take more control of the internet?

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43 responses to “Government Is the Cause of—Not the Solution to—Online Censorship

    1. You need to divide that in two. Your link is Brit government. This is Brit subjects.

      1. A minor technical glitch of the sort is easily pardoned, and easily corrected. Far more serious is Mr. Shackford’s willingness to allow impertinent comments to be posted under his articles. Fortunately, Eugene Volokh put an end to this “libertarian” policy in the Volokh Conspiracy, almost as soon as it moved to Reason. Any comment that he feels is not pertinent to the discussion as Volokh would like to see it developing will, it appears, be immediately censored, blocked and removed. Hopefully Mr. Shackford will follow suit and really help us get rid of the “free speech, say anything you like” nonsense that for far too long was the unstated, but widely acknowledged policy of this website.

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  1. Reason needs to do a better job explaining the relationship between net neutrality and abortion access.

    Does anybody here follow Social Justice Attorney Sandra Fluke on Twitter? She writes, “Killing #NetNeutrality would kill access to abortion information. Before tomorrow’s vote, take action with @NARAL to demand the @FCC keep internet open for #ReproFreedom”

    Do you all comprehend the magnitude of this? Without net neutrality, it will be effectively impossible to find out where and how to access abortion care!

    1. You are a dunce.
      I can hardly comprehend the stupidity of people who would be swayed by this or the arrogance of those who spend their lives demanding what they want.

    2. Hey Sandra, don’t be such a ho-bag and you won’t have to worry about abortion procedures!

      1. What a revolting post. Mansplaining and slut-shaming in the same sentence. Ugh.

        1. You’re absolutely right: Fluke’s political positions and statements are offensive and deplorable enough, no need to speculate on her sexual proclivities.

  2. Unfortunately, the only comfort is that twenty years from now when people are wondering what went wrong, some of us will be able to say “this is what you wanted you stupid fucks.”

    1. Only if you want to be hauled in by the thought police. Otherwise it will be too late.

    2. That’s my response *now* whenever you old foggies complain about Millennials.

      1. You misspelled “stupid fucks that are demanding government control of the internet.” It starts with “M.”

        1. And who will then, after the rules go into effect, bitch about their Netflix being slowed down.

          I technically fall within the ‘Millennial’ generation (1983), depending how you slice it, and you would think the generation that grew up with the internet would realize that treating all packets of information exactly the same is retarded. Guess not, though.

  3. That has to be sarcasm.

    1. intended the above to reply to the Net Neutrality-Abortion post. Dunno what went wrong.

      1. Are you implying Sandra Fluke doesn’t know what she’s talking about when it comes to reproductive rights issues? I bet she knows a lot more than you!

        1. “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.” — Ronald Reagan

        2. Are you implying Sandra Fluke doesn’t know what she’s talking about when it comes to reproductive rights issues? I bet she knows a lot more than you!

          I’m sure she does, in the same way that a mobster or a con man know “what they are talking about” when they talk about their respective areas of expertise. So what? Like those other folks, she uses her knowledge and skill to defraud and oppress people.

    2. Yes, sarcasm. Unfortunately it’s not really funny or poignant in a way sarcasmic does it.

  4. The First Amendment enshrines freedom of speech and of the press. It does not say the government will provide you with a podium, a printing press, or an audience. This you have to go get (and pay for) yourself.

    Net Neutrality is an ongoing attempt to make some users pay for other users enthusiasm for high density applications. Net Neutrality, commonly enough for modern legislation, is the opposite of what the name might lead one to believe.

    1. Tell that to the people that think not having a paid speaking engagement with armed security is “censorship”.

      1. Funny how you have no trouble duscarding equal protection when you don’t like it. Now tell me the one where Obergefell did NOT compel states to recognize other states same sex marriages.

      2. I don’t – quite – say that what colleges do by not closing down violent protests against invited speakers is censorship.

        It IS Fascism. It does run entirely contrary to the principle of free exchange of views that so many colleges claim to revere and so few actually practice. And, tellingly, I think that the college administrators INTEND it to be censorship.

      3. Tell that to the people that think not having a paid speaking engagement with armed security is “censorship”.

        Well, depends on whether it is at institutions receiving billions in public funds or not and what their general rules about paid speaking engagements are. So, can you be more specific who/what you are referring to?

  5. The utter ignorance of those who believe labels like “Net Neutrality” should be encouraging to anyone with a modicum of interest in knowing how things actually work.

    Such a huge number of ignorant pawns is an ecological niche just begging to be exploited.

    1. These are the same double-digit IQ types that sign petitions to ban dihydrogen monoxide.

      1. Water?

      2. Idiots. We all know the real danger is hydrogen hydroxide!

        1. This time of year the danger is the HO’s

  6. Most of the online censorship I’ve come across online involves the platform itself deciding that’s what they want to do.

    I mean, it’s not like Facebook or Twitter were ordered to censor. They just sort of decided that’s the direction they want to go. Or is that simply not true?

    1. Note that those outlets have been ‘censoring’ speech for far longer than the government has come up with regulations like those proposed by Britain in the article. I’m not denying that the government is angling in that direction in a lot of countries, but rather that it’s already something those platforms were doing via their terms of service in the first place.

      I guess the upshot is that when Facebook decides to shut down certain political groups on their platform it’s ‘good’ whereas when the government does it it’s ‘bad’. That is…actually a pretty accurate summation I suppose.

      1. Which is why there is a big difference in believing in the concept of free speech and believing that a constitution is what outlines and determines what is free speech.
        The belief in the power of dialogue predates the Constitution and hopefully will be still be around well after it.

  7. and yet the amount of public pushback FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is getting over the vote to overturn the “Open Internet Order”

    All those Google/Facebook/Netflix employees and privileged, wealthy, nerdy bandwidth hogs are seeing their feeding troughs threatened, that’s why they have been mounting a massive campaign for net neutrality.

    1. It’s settled science that all social media campaigns concerning politics are driven by the Russians, so I for one urge Ajit Pai to stick it to them and eliminate NN.

  8. At the rate May is going, they’ll be serving tofu at the Beefsteak Club by June.

  9. Ask Austin Petersen, the libertarianish candidate for Missouri’s senates. Facebook suspended his personal account due to his politics.

    Google and Twitter often do the same thing.

    Companies are just as bad as government. Indeed, one of the problems with giving government too much power isn’t just that government is itself awful (though it is), it’s that it will use those powers on other’s behalf, like tech companies.

  10. The omission of any references to our current President saying we should “really open up the libel laws” and calling for CNN’s license to be pulled renders this article silly at best. The points about other countries are valid m, yet the lack of any mention of recent, public and concerning statements right here in the USA is a head-scratcher.

  11. Reagan’s “government is the problem” was so incomplete as to be misleading. Who owns our government is the problem.

    “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” – Alex Carey, Australian social scientist, 1995.

    “The corporation is an externalizing machine (moving its operating costs and risks to external organizations and people), in the same way that a shark is a killing machine.” – Robert Monks (2003) Republican candidate for Senate from Maine and corporate governance adviser in the film “The Corporation”.

    1. “Reagan’s “government is the problem” was so incomplete as to be misleading. Who owns our government is the problem.”

      Oh, it’s entirely complete.
      What you’re referring to is the government’s ability to sell favors.
      The government IS the problem.

  12. I await Reason’s proof that the recent efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to purge all conservative and libertarian views from their services as “hate speech” were directed or even suggested by government. As well as Google’s effort to destroy Gab.ai by getting its domain name revoked.

    I submit that these were cronyist initiatives but not instigated by government, and that antitrust enforcement is needed to prevent their like from similarly shutting down free speech on the entire Internet.

    1. Oh! Oh! Me first!

      “I await Reason’s proof that the recent efforts by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to purge all conservative and libertarian views from their services as “hate speech” were directed or even suggested by government. As well as Google’s effort to destroy Gab.ai by getting its domain name revoked.”
      Got a cite that Reason even suggested that?

      “I submit that these were cronyist initiatives but not instigated by government, and that antitrust enforcement is needed to prevent their like from similarly shutting down free speech on the entire Internet.”
      So we need more government which is going to keep other parts of government from governmenting? Who is the final ‘government’ overseeing all these government agencies? The FBI? (hahahahahahhahah)

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