Deutsche Telekom tiptoes towards censorship

German operator group DT keeps banging on about how committed it is to combating online hate speech, but what does that mean in practice?

‘Working to eliminate online hate speech: We’re continuing our commitment in 2021!’ declared a DT press release today. On the surface this seems like a fairly standard piece of corporate social responsibility (CSR) virtue-signalling. It presumably costs DT next to nothing (bar the salaries of its CSR-focused employees) to announce that it’s against bad things and reap the reputational rewards.

But the phrase ‘working to eliminate online hate speech’ begs a lot of questions. Most obviously: how do you define hate speech? Without clear parameters the term is meaningless. Is it any speech that features the word ‘hate’? Is it any unpleasant statement? Is it specifically the persistent victimization of an individual or group? When does a heated exchange cross the line to hate speech? Who decides?

And then we have the word ‘eliminate’. Regardless of any definition, how does DT propose to eliminate a category of speech? Why does it even think this is desirable, let alone its responsibility? DT is merely a utility that provides communication services. It has no more legal or moral responsibility to police speech than a cable provider does to police what we watch on TV.

The press release features a Q&A with Barbara Costanzo, VP of Group Social Engagement, and Christian Hahn from its Global Brand Management team, thus revealing what this is really about. “Get over your shock at all the marginalization and hate speech, and take action!” demanded Costanzo. “Any and all of us can take action and express solidarity. By doing so, we can start feeling better about the whole situation, and start doing something to combat manipulation, hate speech and hostility online.”

“I know now that when I come across online hostility in my own work or private life, I won’t simply look away or ignore the problem,” said Hahn. “I’ll speak out about it consciously and explicitly. We must not allow words to become weapons… In cooperation with a total of 44 partners, Deutsche Telekom is fighting to ensure that people can move freely online, without the fear of being marginalized. We want to make people aware and encourage them to stand up for what is right.”

Unless Hahn and the rest of the CSR team find them guilty of hate speech, presumably, after which will their ability to move freely online be eliminated? Costanzo made frequent references to ‘democracy’, but this all seems pretty unilateral. Who determines what is ‘right’? Was there a vote on it? Beyond vague platitudes neither exec was inclined to outline specific, concrete measures designed to eliminate hate speech, presumably because they would all involve censorship. Maybe, in future, it could combine this initiative with its vaccine passport plans.

The DT video below is designed to exemplify the sort of thing it wants to combat. There’s no question that the online space would be improved if people stopped being unpleasant to each other and of course nobody should be victimized, but eliminating such behaviour is impossible without strict censorship. In a free society people are free to be unpleasant within the law and the only way to combat such bad speech while still maintaining freedom is with better speech.

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