Where should you fear private internet censorship the most?

Alex already has covered this topic.  I am less worried than he is, and I’ll go through a list, but first here are a few general remarks.

Most of the ban attempts seem directed at versions of alt right ideas.  Whether you like it or not, those ideas have benefited from the internet perhaps more than any other.  I am seeing a small amount of that gain clawed back, but in a manner consistent with principles of liberty and free association and probably Coasean efficiency as well.  The claim “the tech companies are way more open than the previous mainstream gatekeepers, but they have to spend more customer and employee goodwill to be all the more open yet” has some resonance with me, but I can’t say it is in the top 300 list of demands I wish to place on the world.  It might not be in the top 1000.

It remains the case that the most significant voluntary censorship issues occur every day in mainstream non-internet society, including what gets on TV, which books are promoted by major publishers, who can rent out the best physical venues, and what gets taught at Harvard or for that matter in high school.  In all of these areas, universal intellectual service was never a relevant ideal to begin with, and so it seems odd to me to pick on say Facebook.  It’s still not nearly as important an influence as the above-mentioned parts of non-internet society, nor is it anywhere close to being as discriminatory.

That all said, I am happy when I see people complain about voluntary censorship, even when I disagree with the complaints, or think the complainer is being too pessimistic.  Complaining > complacency.  That said, here is my wee dose of complacency, in the form of a list across various parts of the internet:

1. On-line dating services.  No fears here.  Christian, Jewish, and other dating services are already set up to include some groups and exclude others.  If OK Cupid excludes neo-Nazis, or supposed neo-Nazis, this seems entirely in order.

2. Amazon.  You can order Mein Kampf on Amazon, and few seem to complain about that.  Does it make sense to have a world where Hitler is available but Milo is banned?  Well, a lot doesn’t make sense these days, but still I don’t ever expect that to happen.  There are cultural and also business reasons why universal booksellers will be among the last to embrace voluntary censorship.

Can you order a swastika, of the evil kind, on Amazon?  It seems not.  Presumably that has been the case for a while, it doesn’t bug me, and I wouldn’t mind if Amazon selectively stopped carrying other political symbols as well.  I bet Wal-Mart doesn’t carry them either.

3. Facebook.  Here my worry quotient at least potentially rises, if only because Americans spend so much time on Facebook.  Let’s say Facebook bans some neo-Nazi groups and communications, and then goes too far and keeps off some groups that offer valuable intellectual contributions, even if their quality might be too “high variance.”

Yet here’s the thing: given my mixed feelings toward Facebook, I see this as OK either way.  If Facebook gets better, well, how bad can “better” be?  But say the Facebook censors overreact, some groups are booted off, and Facebook gets worse.  I don’t mind if Facebook gets worse!  People will spend more time doing other things.  And the unjustly banned group still have plenty of other outlets on the web.  We know from history that every medium encourages some kinds of ideas and discourages others (TV for instance seems to let people think crime rates are pretty high, because crimes get covered on the evening news).  Not long ago, there was no Facebook and those unjustly banned groups couldn’t get on the evening news either.  Maybe that was bad, but it was hardly the end of the world, and even with an overly aggressive Facebook censor we are still far closer to a kind of neutrality across ideas than was the case twenty years ago.

4. Google.  In China I found it very easy to switch to Bing, because Bing is a second or so quicker in China (that is using Google through VPN, otherwise you can’t).  Now maybe Bing bans the same web sites.  And maybe the lower-tier search engines are too crummy, or people are simply not used to using them.

On this issue I have modest fears.  Still, what I’ve seen so far is a Google (and Bing) that want to be as universal as possible, and the constraints as coming from the regulators, such as the EU “forgetting” policy.  Google covers so much material, I think of them as not wanting to devote many resources to adjudicating content.  At the very least, they still seem quite willing to take me to Amazon selling Mein Kampf.

I do expect news.google.com to become more mainstream over time, and indeed it already has.  They are more careful about what pops up on the page.  This too doesn’t bug me, it probably improves average quality, and furthermore it is still a more open forum than is the news on television.

Here you can read a long list of complaints against Google and affiliated services.  Given how much data the company handles, and how many cases arise, I’m amazed they’ve done so well.  Salil Mehta was just restored, by the way.

5. Twitter.  For many people it might be an advantage to be banned from Twitter.  Still, for some views Twitter is an important means of connecting with the audience, Donald Trump being the most prominent example.  So I have a bit of a worry, but I don’t see Twitter as that powerful in the world of ideas.  And overall I have a pretty fluid view of what is likely to matter.  I do not think it is impossible or even implausible that some really important ideas, twenty years from now, are circulated using fanzines, or perhaps something like the old usenet groups.  More generally, our ability as outsiders to judge the health and quality of an intellectual ecosystem just isn’t that great, so maybe we shouldn’t be so judgmental at each step along the way?

6. YouTube (owned by Google).  Due to copyright law, YouTube is already in the business of making plenty of judgments about content and it has the infrastructure to do so.  And unlike Google the search engine, content is posted directly on YouTube itself.  YouTube is a hosting service, not just a search engine, though it is that too.  YouTube search and recommendation algorithms drive a lot of views.  If YouTube won’t host your videos, that is a problem.

But I am not very worried about “YouTube as we know it.”  The forum seems to work quite well (no need to mention Jordan Peterson in the comments, his account was restored).  I am happy that gangs can’t post videos of their killings, and the biggest problem remains government censorship of YouTube.  If you google “banned from YouTube,” I do not see a long list of outrages, that said I would not have banned the Prager University videos.  Whether you like it or not, it is easy to watch Milo on YouTube, even though the publishing world dropped his book like a stone.  The tech companies still seem so much more open than the older media gatekeepers.

Cloudflare, and other internet choke point services: I worry about them a lot.  They can in essence kick you off the entire internet through a single human decision not to offer the right services.  I focus almost all of my worry on them, noting that so far all they have done is kick off one Nazi group.  Still, I think we should reexamine the overall architecture of the internet with this kind of censorship power in mind as a potential problem.  And note this: the main problem with those choke points probably has more to do with national security and the ease of wrecking social coordination, not censorship.  Still, this whole issue should receive much more attention and I certainly would consider serious changes to the status quo.

A bit more

I hope the tech companies do not go further with voluntary censorship, but I don’t think it is obvious that they will.  It seems they felt the need to do something, and now they are hoping the storm will pass.  I do favor vigilance against further overreach, but let’s not overrate the importance of what are so far largely symbolic disputes.

By the way, what’s the deal with the Left favoring net neutrality but wanting all this voluntary internet censorship?


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