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.

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  1. Of course the press will celebrate censorship. True freedom unfortunately permits violating and actively working to destroy freedom.

    1. The mainstream media is rapidly becoming an anachronism. They need to do something to protect themselves…

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    2. Of course the press is in favor of regulating alternative sources of public discussion. Duh!

      NOT that I am claiming social media to be an alternative press, but they are an alternative to relying on the mainstream press to tell people how to think.

  2. Dangerous critique of libertarianism buried in this one.

    Our first instinct is to retort that the press in question is not “free”. But it actually is. The partisans who comprise our media are choosing to behave the way that they do. One recalls the scene in Game of Thrones where freed slaves ask to be resold into slavery, claiming to be too old to learn to provide for themselves.

    And here we are in the “free” world, confronting ever more frequent votes for collectivism, and growing influxes of outsiders who have only ever known even worse collectivism and want it here. But our ideals say we shouldn’t shut these people out.

    Jefferson was right. Only free people can be governed by a free system.

    1. +1

      Far too many people want “libertarianism” to deliver some sort of alternative to what Samuel Adams rightly described as the “animating contest of freedom.”

  3. These people who cheer on or are sympathetic to the use of state power to curtail civil liberties never seem to think that power will be turned back on them.

  4. Only the closet totalitarians in the press will advocate censorship of the internet.
    I look forward to all those who are in favor of it so we can identify all the closet authoritarians.
    It should also be interesting to note the same ones who advocate censorship on the internet will be the first to scream bloody murder if the government would make any attempt to censor their speech.

    1. Most of the media is the modern equivalent of a Pinkerton Agent. They aren’t free, and they aren’t representing the interests of freedom.

  5. I think the US government has done a pretty good job of letting the free market censor itself.

  6. how long would it take for commenting to be removed entirely?

    I believe a lot of news orgs are removing their comment sections as we speak.

  7. Will the new agency be called the Ministry of Truth?

    1. RealFact must give way to GoodFact.

  8. The people who are for this nonsense, try to sneak one past everyone, and hardly anyone even realizes it. The very use of the word “harmful” in terms of content on Facebook/Google/Twitter et al.

    FFS, does no one teach their kids that “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names (words) can never hurt me”? It is as if that movie “Pulse”, or “The Ring” or Stephen King’s “Cell” are real and something nefarious can physically come out of the computer/phone and kill someone.

    1. >> does no one teach their kids that “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names (words) can never hurt me”?

      Oh how quaint!!!

      1. That’s a saying I haven’t heard in decades, along with “It’s a free country.”

    2. Now it’s “Sticks and stones may be dodged when thrown, but words cut all the way through me.”

      1. Now it’s “Sticks and stones may be dodged when thrown, but words are violence.”


      2. fitting rewrite

  9. At the risk of getting banned again from Reason and having all my comments deleted for supporting free speech on the internet, thank you Reason for supporting free speech on the internet. The problem isn’t the internet companies who fail to police comments, but that the users ourselves are too lax in confronting the offensive comments we come across.

    Facebook, Twitter, youtube, etc have given us the power to fight hate speech and incitement across the world from the comfort and safety of our living rooms and instead we sign a petition demanding that social media companies ‘do more’ to police their sites and then pat ourselves on the back for our slacktivism. Meanwhile the few of us who actually work hard to fight hate speech online are liable to get banned. That’s the real problem. And then other commenters instead of supporting us, just pile on and say, “You’ve never said anything useful” and “I’ve said naughty things and never got banned so you have nothing to worry about.”

  10. A free press will not cheer government control; the socialist press in the USA will be right out in front waving a big flag labeled “shut them down!” (meaning anything to the right of Pol Pot)

  11. If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.

  12. free press?

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

    Yes. You wanna know why? Because the majority of journalists, and even a lot of non-journalists, believe that the First Amendment specifically puts them in a separate class that will be immune to the censorship.

  14. There is no “free press.” The press is paid propaganda for various ideological groups.

    1. Ah. Yes. The Press Gang.

  15. There isn’t a solution to this problem that leaves the internet operating as it now does. The only useful question is which of two general alternatives do you prefer? The first is government intervention, meaning outright censorship. The second is to go back to the days before Section 230 enabled liability-free publishing of libel, and promoted internet giantism by undermining copyright protection.

    Repeal Section 230, and the problem goes away without government censorship or regulation. You just go back to the days of private editing, which were very good days indeed for speech freedom, for diversity of publication, and for profitability sufficient to support news gathering and opinion publication. It is an already-familiar system which worked superbly for a very long time, and best of all, it kept censorship continuously at bay. It would work even better now, because the internet has largely eliminated the notable capital requirement that getting started in publishing previously required.

    If you decide you don’t like the two questions, and wish for something else, there is always the status quo. But good luck. The old saying, “What can’t go on forever, won’t,” has never been so apt.

  16. The days of leftists hiding their authoritarian values are over.

    If you want humans to embrace personal responsibility and freedom you’re going to have to work towards decimating the Democratic party because its platform essentially vilifies the Constitution, and America itself, as a product of racism.

  17. As you may know, the fake news site, NYTimes.com, hired the racist communist Sarah Jeon.

    There is an interview with her in this week’s “Willamette Week.”

    Sarah Jeong Is Watching the Web From Portland. She Sees a Pile of Garbage.

    Sarah Jeong has a warning: Fix the internet before it destroys America.

    “The internet, in its current shape, has brought out the worst parts of humanity and is hiding the best parts,” she says. “It’s possible the internet has made us lose our minds.”

    When Jeong goes online, here’s what she sees: YouTube videos spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Digital mobs copy-and-pasting harassing memes. Data brokers buying your private information from tech monoliths and placing ads targeting your weaknesses.

    “We’re living in a scammer’s paradise,” Jeong says, “not just economic scams, but intellectual scams, too.”

    People are beginning to listen to her.



    Totalitarians, like her, want only their views to be disseminated and tolerated .

    America is in a battle to protect Enlightenment values such as freedom and the ability to argue for what you believe in without government interference.

    These totalitarians would ban many books based on their ideology. They would ban you for the internet because of your thoughts. They would even have you arrested by the state for thought and hate crimes.

  18. “The lede to Romm’s piece describes these online companies as having “long dodged responsibility for what its users say or share” ”
    This is, to me, the most troubling of all these efforts to curb online speech. Holding online companies responsible for user comments would be like holding Microsoft responsible for everything that has ever been typed into a Word document. I certainly don’t want to see Word adding non-override-able “trigger-checking” to its spelling- and grammar-checking.
    I could see doing something like the online forums do with a “netiquette” doc and some moderators, but government has made for terrible content vetting every time they try it.

  19. Many in the media (myself included) have a love-hate relationship with commenters,

    We only hit you because we love you, Scott.

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  21. If only the Washington Post would have specifically addressed this exact issue in an opinion from their editorial board some time in the last week? Oh look, they did. “The dark side of regulating speech on Facebook”

  22. This Article raise allot of good points. Regardless of what any Media claims and Popular Opinions, Government should not regulate Social Media

    1. But is it too much to ask that Reason authors not falsely conflate certain social media companies with the internet?

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