Leaked Google Document Reveals Shift to Suppressing Free Speech

By Rachel Alexander Published on October 17, 2018

An 85-page Google internal briefing, chillingly and perhaps oxymoronically titled “The Good Censor,” was just leaked. The big tech giants are moving away from supporting a free internet, it says. Instead, they move toward censoring their users. That’s inevitable. And possibly even “good.”

The briefing matter-of-factly notes that global internet freedoms have gone downhill for the past seven years. Users now question celebrating the openness of the internet. “People are no longer willing to see the platforms as neutral mediators of social life.”

“More people are asking, isn’t ‘big tech’ really ‘big media’ in disguise?”

“Is it possible to have an open and inclusive internet while simultaneously limiting political oppression and despotism, hate, violence and harassment?” asks Nathaniel Tkacz. He teaches in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick.

Several news sources are quoted calling for the big tech giants to be treated as media companies due to the increasing censorship. So far, big tech has rejected the label in order to retain their immunity from liability. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act states that tech firms have legal immunity for the majority of the content posted on their platforms. This is unlike ‘traditional’ media outlets. But, the report notes, “more people are asking, isn’t ‘big tech’ really ‘big media’ in disguise?”

Google’s Principles for Determining the Right Amount of Censorship

Be more consistent.
Don’t take sides.
Police tone instead of content.
Be more transparent.
Enforce standards and policies clearly.
Justify global positions.
Explain the technology.
Be more responsive.
Improve communications.
Take problems seriously.
Be more empowering.
Positive guidelines.
Better signposts.

The briefing cites “breeding conspiracy theories” as one of the reasons for the censorship. What example does it offer? President Trump’s claim that “Google’s search engine was suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton.”

Isn’t this a conspiracy theory? No.  Robert Epstein, a behavioral psychologist who supported Hillary Clinton, found it was true. His research determined that Google favored Clinton over Trump during the election.

Gradual Steps

The briefing notes the tech giants’ first partial steps to censorship. They hurt the target without actually removing particular statements. Twitter removes the verified blue check from those who violate its policies. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube briefly suspend accounts. YouTube demonetizes videos. 

But they also indulge in full banning. Google banned ads about guns and ads from payday lenders. YouTube increased the number of people on the lookout to ban content to more than 10,000.

The briefing notes that tech firms are forming a balancing act between two incompatible positions. On the one hand, they are trying to create “unmediated ‘marketplaces of ideas’ in the American tradition.” On the other hand, they want to create “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility in the European tradition.”

The American tradition prioritizes free speech for democracy, not civility. It creates space to debate all values. Even civility norms can be debated. The European tradition favors dignity over liberty. It values civility over freedom. It censors racial and religious hatred — even where there is no threat of violence.

Free Speech Now Private?

The document quotes Kalev Leetaru, an American internet entrepreneur who writes about data and society. He says that we no longer think of censorship in terms of government. Now, private companies control whether your speech stays up or goes down.

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The briefing goes over reasons why this shift is taking place. One is to appease users and stop bad behavior. Another is in response to government regulations. A third reason is to protect advertisers from content they may not like.

This new position as ‘moderator in chief’ has been coming for some time. Leetaru says the internet is evolving into a “corporate-controlled moderated medium.”

Franklin Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic and , admits there is a problem. The former editor of the liberal flagship The New Republic says, “We do know that journalism, activism and public debate are being silenced in the effort to stamp out extremist speech.”

Balancing Act

The briefing observes, “The balancing act between ‘free-for-all’ and ‘civil-for-most’ is proving difficult.” It ends with principles for finding the right amount of censorship. One is to justify global positions of agreeing to censorship in other countries. Another is to provide positive guidelines. The tech giants should give people positive guidance on how to behave on the platform — not only tell them how not to act.

It may sound reasonable. But it suffers a big problem. Who decides what is abuse, harassment and hate speech? What one person considers conservative speech, another person may think abusive or hateful. This has taken place all too many times already.

The tech giants are beginning to control who can say what. Who elected the tech giants to decide what free speech is allowed?

 

Follow Rachel on Twitter at Rach_IC. Send tips to rachel.alexander@stream.org.

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