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Another week, another internet freedom debate

Facebook baiting

As the dust settles on the FCC’s net neutrality fait accompli a new threat to internet freedom rears its ugly head.

Censorship is, quite rightly, an emotive subject. All over the supposedly free world the balance between freedom of speech and security is being debated and tested. Nowhere is this more important than online, where so much public discourse is now conducted.

Much of it is concentrated onto three platforms: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and all three are, to some extent, increasingly acting to police what is posted on them.

The most conspicuous of these this week is Twitter, which has begun enforcing rules with the apparent aim of reducing hateful and abusive content on the platform. As with many forms of censorship this seems reasonable on the surface, until you ask who are the arbiters of what is ‘hateful’ and how such terms are defined by them. Can you still tweet ‘I hate Mondays’, for example?

The semantics of the word ‘hate’ have taken on legal significance in many countries where legislation designed to combat ‘hate speech’ has occurred, but still we lack a clear definition. An additional concern is that certain groups are more likely to be given the ‘hate’ tag than others, resulting in them being subjected to more stringent censorship.

Tech site Neowin offers an overview of the delicate balancing act Twitter is faced with in policing a platform on which people of all views and positions seem incapable of expressing themselves in a calm and reasoned manner. As if to illustrate that very point the hashtag #TwitterPurge is currently trending for those who feel the new rules are draconian and a threat to free speech.

Meanwhile Facebook has announced a deprioritization of content it deems to be ‘engagement bait’ – i.e. containing inducements to ‘like’, or share or whatever. Again, what’s not to like, right? But the very fact that Facebook is able to police your News Feed shows how much control it already has over what you see whenever you log on.

And let’s not forget the recent story of Facebook and other social media in Germany, which have been threatened with fines if they don’t actively remove claimed ‘hate speech’ within 24 hours of it being reported. Again where are the parameters and who gets to do the reporting?

Lastly YouTube. While it has announced no new rules this week to the best of our knowledge, it is embroiled in an ongoing dispute around ‘demonetization’. YouTube is the overwhelmingly dominant video sharing platform in most markets and a significant source of income for the most popular YouTubers through their share of advertising revenue driven by their vids. A refusal to serve ads against their videos, conversely, cuts off that revenue.

Earlier this year the platform faced a massive advertiser boycott when some ads were found to have been served on videos that promoted, among other things, ‘hate’. Its response was, understandably enough, to stop serving ads on such content, but in its haste it may well have cast the net too wide, as indicated by successful YouTuber Dave Rubin below.

The internet giants are the new dominant global publishers and it’s right that they be scrutinised. Also, due to their user-generated content emphasis, they are also bound to feature a lot of stuff a lot of people don’t like. But the rush to encourage them to be censors is likely to have a lot of unintended consequences, some of which will be highly regrettable. Kind of puts the net neutrality debate into a different perspective, doesn’t it?

 


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