Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube have all agreed to act as thought police for the European Union. In an incisive column over at BloombergView, Leonid Bershidsky notes that:
The four U.S. companies have accepted a European Union-dictated code of conduct, which obliges them to “review the majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to such content.” The reviewing is to be done by “civil society organizations” and “trusted reporters”: the EU and its member states are to “ensure access” to them.
This arrangement effectively outsources the enforcement of Europe’s hate speech laws to nongovernmental organizations with a direct interest in describing certain kinds of speech as hate-inciting — and to private companies that find it easier to delete a comment or a post than to fight those organizations or governments and risk losing money.
The corporations could, in theory, have said no; only Facebook has the technical know-how to police the 230,000 posts per minute made in Europe. But the Silicon Valley giants, fearing for their market share (and already anxious about various EU
shakedown attempts tax investigations and regulatory proposals) caved to the Brussels busybodies.
If you’re familiar with the bien pensant leanings of European NGOs, you won’t be at all surprised by what’s coming next:
Streamlined, semi-automatic censorship by interest groups should work better [for the companies] than a free-for-all [of block requests]. That, of course, is a problem for “politically incorrect” right-wing populists; the “trusted reporters” are highly likely to classify their utterances as hate speech. Besides, by subscribing to the code of conduct, the Internet giants have also promised to “continue their work in identifying and promoting independent counter-narratives” — to be proactive in fighting the viewpoints associated with the loose definition of hate speech.
The social networks started as neutral platforms where anybody could say anything and be rewarded with admiration or ridicule. As they grew into huge businesses, however, an aversion to getting in trouble with governments took over, especially as European countries have attacked them on other fronts. They could have told the governments it was their responsibility to enforce their laws, obtain proper court orders, prosecute offending users and put in requests for the removal of noxious material. They chose an easier path. Rather than let their users accept or reject the various views that their peers might express, the companies signed up to police them with the help of “civil society” activists.
As Andrew Stuttaford over at NRO sardonically noted, “‘Independent counter-narratives’ sounds so much better than propaganda. ‘Independent’ is a particularly nice touch.”
Though European leaders spoke broadly about extremism (and dropped hints about Islamist terrorism), at least part of what they have in mind here is clearly to keep the far-right down. European leaders have form in this regard: After the mass sexual assaults by a mob of North Africans including immigrants on New Year’s Eve, for instance, German politicians argued that “What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chatrooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women”. Meanwhile prosecutors initiated investigations and arrests based on online comments. Now Facebook, Twitter, and the others will be involved more directly.
The thing is, Europeans have managed to spread nationalist ideology before the age of Facebook, and doubtless will figure it out again. And imposing restraints on what can and can’t be said in “polite company” isn’t exactly a new idea either; there’s a good argument to be made that that not only didn’t stop, but may have helped the rise of the contemporary European far right.
Moreover, it still doesn’t seem to have sunk in for the European great and good that a far-right party could soon control the levers of government somewhere. When they do, they’re sure to look on this sort of thing as a model. Already, the Polish government has strong, politicized, and controversial views on Polish history. Viktor Orban has views that don’t sit well with the great and the good in Brussels. And these are people who’ve been able, more or less, to coexist within the system; what happens if the FN or a more extreme party decides to try this on for size? This kind of control makes politics even more of a zero-sum game, and will surely contribute to raised temperatures and raised stakes across the Continent (while not, we suspect, making it all that much harder for angry people to say jerkish things on the Internet.)
That’s Europe’s problem, though—as too is their persistent attempt to break the tech revolution to the European, heavily-paternalist version of the Blue Model. (Brussels cracking down on Silicon Valley tech companies, rather than concentrating on Europe’s lack of them, is getting to be an old story.)
For Americans, there should be a slightly different set of concerns. For one thing, we need to be on guard against this spreading here. While we do have the First Amendment, which should in theory keep us safe from this kind of censoriousness, there’s enough in the air on both the Right and the Left to suggest vigilance is needed. The campus Left and Donald Trump alike would both find things to love in this sort of regulatory regime, and it wouldn’t be the first time the Constitution has been reinterpreted—or just plain bent—to allow for political censorship.
More broadly, we need to continue to debate our political approach to the internet. The world wide web was never going to be, as some idealists dreamt early on, a pure realm of untrammeled liberty, because there is no technological solution to the broken nature of humanity. Now, even as more and more of our economy and our political life is tied up in cyberspace, it’s becoming increasingly clear both that unregulated cyberspace is a Hobbesian world and that foreign governments are responding their as their national traditions dictate—with a heavy hand. How should the U.S. react when foreign countries—including allies—seek to bully U.S. corporations into taking actions contrary both to our interests and our values? What role should our own government play in protecting freedom of exchange in cyberspace, and how should we handle that when it butts up against other interests? And how can we preserve and extend our own Lockean balance between freedom and order to the digital space that will be so vital in the 21st century?