Will a Free Press Cheer on Government Censorship of the Internet?

Will a thirst to punish Silicon Valley destroy our liberty?


Internet Censorship
Igor Sapozhkov / Dreamstime.com

The United Kingdom appears to be following in the footsteps of the European Union and Australia in trying to punish online platforms that don't censor content the way government officials want them to.

The British authorities are pondering a proposal to create an entirely new government agency to regulate, and even punish, online communication platforms to make them more thorough in removing content the government deems dangerous or violent.

There isn't a full-fledged plan yet—more of a blueprint of what lawmakers would like to get passed. But the intent is very clear: The government wants to hold executives at various tech companies liable, financially and possibly even criminally, for content that officials do not want posted online.

Sadly, this move should not be surprising. Every outrage has led to more calls for regulation, and the viral distribution of videos of the recent massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, may finally be the tipping point, or at least the latest excuse.

What may be more surprising is how willing people in the media—people whose work depends on the right to a free press—are to frame this as a story of wise leaders holding the feet of those irresponsible, profit-grubbing Silicon Valley tech bros to the fire.

Consider Tony Romm's report on the British plan, published in The Washington Post. It contains a lot of loaded language for what is supposed to be a straightforward news story. The lede to Romm's piece describes these online companies as having "long dodged responsibility for what its users say or share," not-so-subtly suggesting that Facebook and Google are getting away something sinister. The article later says these companies face this regulation because they are "failing to clean up a host of troubling content."

Romm uses the "experts said" route (he literally uses the words "experts said") to suggest that these regulations could stop the reach of violent content online, yet the only individual human beings quoted in his story are government officials. His example of an "expert" is U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who is proving to be no expert in anything at all.

The story ends with a quote from Sajid Javid, U.K.'s home secretary (the cabinet-level position overseeing national security), saying they're "forcing these firms to clean up their act once and all." That leaves readers with a message that these companies are doing something wrong by not engaging in enough censorship that pleases the government.

Romm also links to a pro-censorship "Somebody do something!" panicked commentary by Margaret Sullivan that insists that social media companies have to "deal with the crisis that they helped create" by using "editorial judgment" to control what can be said on their platforms, just like news outlets do.

The punchline: Directly under Sullivan's panicked fearmongering are 1,300 comments posted by readers. They were not, in fact, hand-picked by the Washington Post's editors. Here's how their professional judgment works when it comes to online participation:

Most discussions on The Post are post-moderated, which means reader comments appear almost instantaneously. We do this to foster an organic discussion without delay, but this also means comments that go against the rules may appear before they're removed.

Our team moderates discussions 24/7, but we rely on the community to help police discussions. If you see a post against the rules, use the flag button to report it. Reports go directly to our team, so be judicious.

Alternatively, readers can block posts from other commenters by muting them. To do this, click their display name and select "Ignore." You can unmute a reader by going to your profile.

So not even the Washington Post operates the way Sullivan wants. If, say, the U.S. government were to fine the Washington Post if somebody posted an inappropriate comment and their moderators didn't delete it fast enough, how long would it take for commenting to be removed entirely? Many in the media (myself included) have a love-hate relationship with commenters, so it wouldn't be surprising if some people at the Post actually want such an outcome. It would be a soft form of government censorship, because it wouldn't be directly imposed. The Post itself would make the decision—but only because of its fear of fines.

Over at the BBC, technology reporter Chris Fox actually went through the effort to talk to people who value online speech freedom, rather than just leaving this story presentation as though it was about wise regulators bringing feckless tech monsters to heel:

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said the government's proposals would "create state regulation of the speech of millions of British citizens".

Matthew Lesh, head of research at free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, went further.

He said: "The government should be ashamed of themselves for leading the western world in internet censorship.

"The proposals are a historic attack on freedom of speech and the free press.

"At a time when Britain is criticising violations of freedom of expression in states like Iran, China and Russia, we should not be undermining our freedom at home."

Rather than leaving readers with a government official demanding more control over the Internet for all our own good, Fox chose to end his story with a warning from civil libertarians that these proposals from the United Kingdom could "violate individuals' rights to freedom of expression and privacy."

They're absolutely right to be worried.