With big tech helping government officials to control the sharing of information, we need to support alternatives to undermine their censorious efforts.
Within hours of the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that country’s government called on people to refrain from sharing the killer’s “manifesto” and the video he’d taken of his crimes-in-progress. Except that New Zealand’s officials didn’t just ask; pointing to the laws of their own country, they demanded that the offending material be suppressed by social media companies and online publishers, under penalty of laws that wouldn’t seem to apply beyond the island nation.
The desire to avoid promoting a mass murderer’s ideas and actions is certainly understandable, but the wisdom of removing them from public observation and discussion isn’t by any means a given. And the eagerness with which most of the online giants complied with a government’s censorship demands raises serious concerns about the prospects for the free exchange of ideas. The dangers of that sort of soft totalitarianism emphasize the importance of developing and promoting alternative platforms which are committed to free speech and resistant to collaborating with government officials.
“It’s our view that [the murderer’s video] cannot, should not, be distributed, available, able to be viewed. It is horrendous,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters, amidst concerns that the graphic footage would harm viewers. “You can’t have something so graphic available and it not. That is why it is so important that it is prioritised, that it is removed.”
To achieve that goal, New Zealand’s chief censor (yes, it has such an office) formally banned the video, imposing fine of $10,000 and up to 14 years in prison on anybody sharing it, and demanding the names of anybody (apparently including those living in less censorious jurisdictions) who had already done so. Officials also moved to involve the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—in monitoring and controlling social media.
Even before the legal penalties were in place, big tech companies stumbled over themselves to comply. Facebook reported that it had deleted or blocked 1.5 million copies of the bloody video, and it fought attempts to link to the hate-filled manifesto. Twitter and Youtube did the same, and document sharing services including Document Cloud and Scribd worked to delete the 74-page screed.
The tech giants alternately won praise for moving quickly to suppress speech, and criticism for not moving fast and thoroughly enough.
It is understandable why they wouldn’t want such unpleasant material circulating on their services. But it’s also disturbing that they moved in lockstep, with no pushback over the call to delete content, and no public discussion of the wisdom of the policy.