A recent article in Ars Technica is titled: “Tech companies declare war on hate speech—and conservatives are worried.” I take issue with it, because it is not only conservatives who should be worried. Everyone should be worried. It’s similar to the contentious net neutrality wars in which the liberals (by and large) and their liberal friends in Silicon Valley are outraged at the prospect of net neutrality being dismantled by uncaring conservatives - the group presently in control of the agenda.
On the net neutrality issue, conservatives too should be worried about the prospects of throttling and paid prioritization, among other things. They will suffer along with everyone else. Similarly, the knee-jerk reaction to far-right demonstrations - most notably in Charlotteville - of websites deciding what kind of “free” speech should be allowed, is equally unnerving - or should be.
In doing so, they are creating a slippery slope, and a situation which is the antithesis of free speech. Way back in 1996, perhaps presciently, some folks predicted the thorny situation in which we find ourselves today and opined about the internet:
“We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”. (A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace - Davos, Switzerland, 1996)
We should mull over these words. It seems that some people think free speech does not apply to any speech that they don’t like, or find offensive. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when framing the First Amendment. In fact, it could very well be argued that it was that very offensive, provocative speech that they had in mind.
Don’t get me wrong. I find hate speech of any kind vile, and can see why there is such revulsion at the antics of extremist groups espousing white supremacy and its racist tenets. However, in my judgment, this move to suppress free speech is not only unconstitutional, but has privacy implications, too.
The current situation came to a head recently when Cloudflare took down neo-nazi site Daily Stormer, caving under criticism and wilting despite its long-held tradition.
"One of the greatest strengths of the United States is a belief that speech, particularly political speech, is sacred," wrote Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince in 2013. "There will be things on our network that make us uncomfortable," he continued, but "we will continue to abide by the law, serve all customers, and hold consistently to a belief that our proper role is not that of Internet censor."
Now, this is precisely what Cloudflare and others are doing - engaging in censorship because certain things offend their sensibilities.
Cloudflare is not alone in its hypocrisy. A few years ago, reddit expressed similar free speech convictions. After saying, "We uphold the ideal of free speech on reddit as much as possible" back in 2014, reddit did a 180. Shortly thereafter, the site started banning communities devoted to racism and misogyny. It isn't alone, however, and shouldn't be singled out.
Twitter, for example, posited in 2012 that the company represented "the free speech wing of the free speech party." Could they have been referring to the left-leaning Democratic Party, whose darling occupied the White House? More recently, it has ramped up efforts to combat harassment on its platform, notably banning right-wing internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
Now, ironically, the Oval Office occupant uses Twitter almost exclusively to go over the heads of a left-leaning mainstream media that is seemingly bent on destroying him.
You see, trying to make decisions based on political leanings rather than sticking to principles - principles rooted in constitutional law, is fraught with peril. Again, it would behoove us to revisit the two decades old words from Davos on the subject:
“In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat."
Cloudflare’s Prince put it even more vividly a few years ago:
"A website is speech. It is not a bomb."
This entire episode has become a bomb, though - a ticking time bomb. If the Left-leaning are allowed to cherry-pick what is allowed and what isn’t, who is to say that, one day, Right-leaning groups may not do the same. One only has to look at repressive regimes like Russia and China to get a picture of what happens to speech that is liked by the party in power. Like I said - everyone should be worried, regardless of your political persuasion.
Opinions are the writer's own.