Silicon Valley’s Yellow Card on Free Speech

Last year at this time, a debate over net neutrality in the context of freedom of the Internet consumed Washington. Average Americans hadn’t heard about “net neutrality”, let alone thought enough about it to have a position on it. Advocates were at a loss to even explain any actual harm it would protect against. But President Obama’s FCC rammed the regulations through anyway.

Perhaps what was most surprising about the net neutrality debate a year ago is that many of Silicon Valley’s biggest corporate giants publicly declared that giving the government power to regulate the Internet as a public utility was somehow necessary to ensure Internet “free speech”. Twitter, building on its claim that it is the free speech wing of the free speech party, wrapped itself in the flag at the time, proclaiming:

“Empowering ‘lesser’ or historically less powerful voices to express themselves and be heard globally is at the core of Twitter’s DNA. Under net neutrality principles, consumers decide which lawful content, applications, and services they want to create, access or share with others…If you have an opinion or a new innovative web-based service, you don’t have to get permission to share it with the world at large. This is the heart of Twitter.”

Much has changed at Twitter in the past year. No longer welcomed in the free speech wing of the free speech party are the politically incorrect, often offensive, Twitterers who it would appear are arbitrarily banned not for any actual threats or harassment of others, but merely for expressing political or ideological preferences that are out of fashion.

In one such recent example, Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay conservative reporter with over 140,000 followers who often engages in coarse, lusty and yes often outright offensive Twitter wars with his opponents had his “verified” status removed by Twitter. Verification removal is the online equivalent of getting a yellow card.

To be clear, I and many others often find Milo’s tweets skip right past funny and go straight to obnoxious and offensive. But none of his tweets as far as I can tell cross the line into actual harassment or abuse.

Outside of being a hypocrite, Twitter, as a private company, is certainly within its rights to censor and ban use of its platform in any way it sees fit. And that is why freedom of speech has entered a new and much more dangerous frontier. The Internet may be the modern equivalent of the printing press but true public squares on the Internet are dwindling rapidly.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are private companies that can trump our ability to speak freely with their terms of service contracts. News sites are increasingly shutting down comment sections to avoid the opinions of the hoi polloi. And some Silicon Valley giants who most vigorously championed a “free and open Internet” a year ago in the net neutrality debate are now beginning to partner with governments themselves to censor speech.

For instance, Google, Twitter and other corporate tech giants have updated the terms of service for German users to allow the companies to delete their comments at the behest of the German government .Under the new agreement, these so-called champions of Internet free speech have agreed to remove comments that are simply considered “insulting” within 24 hours of being notified by Germany’s government censors. So much for the rule of law and due process.

Earlier this week, Google Ideas’ Dan Keyserling wrote that restrictions on so-called hate speech come with a cost — the “erosion of the idea of free speech.” As he pointed out, once governments are granted the right to decide what types of speech are permitted, the next logical step is government regulating the channels for distribution of that information.

Keyserling’s sentiments are spot on of course, but his own employer, Twitter and other Silicon Valley giants are increasingly a big part of the problem. Bypassing the democratic process, governments now know they can partner directly with Silicon Valley corporate gatekeepers to do the dirty work Keyserling warns about.

It is truly alarming that a line stuck in a hundred page long terms of service agreement that no one reads and can be changed without notice can take our cherished first amendment rights away.

To paraphrase TS Eliott:

This is the way the free and open Internet ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.