Why Silicon Valley is Killing Free Speech
Control leads to censorship.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism
In one survey, 75% of tech entrepreneurs voted for Hillary Clinton. 8.8% voted for Trump. 83% back higher taxes, 82% support gun control and another 82% are in favor of socialized medicine.
Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon employees were 4 out of 5 of Bernie Sanders’ top donors. Cash from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft poured into the Clinton campaign. $1.6 million was donated by Google employees to Hillary Clinton and Google employee money is still pouring into competitive congressional races in the midterm elections. The same is true across the tech spectrum.
People have a right to their own political views. But that’s an idea that today’s Silicon Valley rejects.
The internet was born through universities, hobbyists and neglected labs. It was experimentally libertarian. Two generations later it’s controlled by a handful of monopolistic tech firms whose leaders and employees are dogmatically leftist. Most users haven’t cared much as the local BBS and then the forum gave way to centralized platforms like Facebook. But centralization represented a cultural and political shift. Freedom ceased to be part of the internet’s innate technological DNA and instead became an eccentricity that Big Tech temporarily tolerated because it made the tech companies money.
And relying on the tolerance of the adherents of a political movement that had never been noted for its willingness to tolerate the dissenting speech of its political opponents was never going to end well.
The internet was free when control over its medium was diversified. Its message ceased to be free as its core platforms became centralized. Its old model had been innately libertarian. Its new model was just as innately socialist, imitating its old hobbyist culture with free services, but offering those free services in exchange for reselling control and surveillance over the people who were making use of them.
Google, Facebook and other big tech firms tolerated freedom on the internet for a variety of reasons, some cultural, some political and some economic. The old generation of Boomer hobbyists had long since made way for Generation X liberals and millennial lefties, but the culture was still there. Even tech industry lefties have a more libertarian outlook than their peers in other industries. And none of the firms wanted the responsibility of actually censoring their content. Not only is it an expensive and difficult process, but it would make them responsible for what actually appeared on their services.
A laissez faire attitude made it easier for Google, Facebook and Twitter to agnostically cash in on user content. They were providing a service and weren’t responsible. But that was never going to last.
Even before Trump’s victory, the cultural shift to a millennial activist tech workforce, increasing pressure from Europe and growing desperation by the media over the internet threat were turning points.
European governments had never been comfortable with American tech companies and their permissive attitude toward free speech. As domestic political pressures mounted, nervous governments, especially Merkel’s in Germany, came to view big tech companies as unlicensed media operations that allowed “extremists” to bypass the regulated media with dangerous populist opinions.
Meanwhile the media’s business model was already under siege from Google and Facebook. The media had to manufacture a crisis that would force regulation of news content on social media platforms. That crisis arrived in the form of Donald J. Trump. While Clinton’s people blamed their defeat on the Russians, the media seized on the “fake news” angle to blame Trump’s victory on social media misinformation. (Later these two competing narratives were synthesized into Russian bots spreading fake news, but initially the media was blaming the Macedonians, not the Russians.)
The media did not especially care whether it was the Russians or the Macedonians. Its real targets weren’t in Moscow or Skopje, but in Silicon Valley. It had already seen Craigslist wipe out the business models of many local papers. And it feared that Facebook was about to do the same thing to it. And so it whipped up a panic among nervous elites by blaming Trump, Brexit and political populism on the unregulated social media environment on Facebook and throughout the entire internet.
The media isn’t just an ideology. It’s an industry. It was in the business of selling buggy whips, while social media firms were giving away sports cars. But as rattled elites confronted the specter of populism, being in the buggy whip business suddenly had a clear advantage as world leaders trembled at the roar of sports car engines rounding the track. It wasn’t really about the Russians. It was about populism.
And what was more populist than the internet? The common denominator of Trump, Brexit and other subversive political movements is that the people ignored what the media had been telling them. Why? Because they were being influenced by unregulated materials on social media instead. If the internet were better regulated, everyone would listen to the media and the populism problem would vanish.
The media’s assault on Trump, its advocacy against Brexit and for Muslim migration, wasn’t just ideological, it was an industrial act of virtue signaling intended for the consumption of political elites. “Imagine,” its message is to Democrats, to Labour, to left-leaning Republicans and Tories, to Merkel and a horde of other European bureaucrats and leaders, “just imagine if we were the only game in town.”
Every furious media attack on Trump isn’t just ideological hatred. It’s an audition.
The arguments about the dangers of the internet were the same old ones that had been made by the media for a generation. Its reporters were responsible professionals. The bloggers, vloggers and social media influencers were a dangerous horde of rabble. But Trump’s victory had put teeth into the smears.
Suddenly the idea that the internet’s freedom was dangerous wasn’t an abstraction, but a reality.
The media successfully turned its problem, Silicon Valley, into the problem of political elites. Suddenly Facebook wasn’t just a good way to reach constituents or look at your cousin’s cat pictures. It was how Trump won. It was why Brexit happened. It was why people opposed Muslim migration. It was evil.
And then it was no longer a question of whether the internet would be censored, but on what terms.
The media wanted special privileges. Google and Facebook baked in media fact checkers to oversee its results. But that wasn’t enough. Fact checking brought in clicks, but the media wanted a whole lot more. And Big Tech wasn’t about to give it all away either. It met the media’s virtue signaling with its own virtue signaling by deplatforming the sites and individuals that it associated with the right.
That was how the purge began.
The media went after Big Tech. And Big Tech went after the right.
A rising millennial workforce, more organized than ever in the #Resistance era, applied internal pressure. The media and political elites applied external pressure. And Google, Facebook and Twitter, and assorted smaller companies who shared an interlocking economic and cultural ecosystem with them, began erratically censoring, shadowbanning and deplatforming their targets.
The censorship was erratic because there were no real rules. Attempts to formulate consistent rules faltered. And set rules would represent a liability. Especially when they were applied to the left.
The purge was ideological. But it was primarily self-serving.
The media was trying to survive economically by creating a political crisis. Big Tech was fighting to survive politically by defusing the crisis to prevent the media and its lefty allies from regulating it.
And many on the right were caught in the shockwave from the hostile collision of two huge industries.
But despite their size, all the players in the purge are afraid. The political elites are terrified. Trump’s victory, Brexit and the rise of populist parties in Europe have them fearing that the consensus is collapsing. The media is afraid that its industry won’t survive the internet. And Silicon Valley is afraid of what every industry, once it becomes established, fears, the great hand of government regulations.
While Big Tech may support higher taxes (for other people), gun control (for people who aren’t their bodyguards) and nationalized health care (see above), it really doesn’t like regulation.
What the elites, the media and Big Tech all fear is change. And the totalitarian answer to change is control. Control people and you control change. The tighter you control them, the more you can predict. The old internet had been based on unleashing human unpredictability. The new internet is all about predicting what people will do. And then using that knowledge to control what they actually do.
The internet had unleashed a wave of incredible change. Now the tech companies who had ridden that change to become a new establishment are ready to dam up the change and hand over the keys.
The censorship wave has one core problem and one core solution. The political elites, the media and the tech companies are all villains. But centralization made censorship inevitable. Once a small number of interlocking companies gained the power to choke off free speech on the internet, it was only a matter of time until they did it. The triggers discussed in this article are a detail. The ability is the real threat.
Free speech can’t only be protected legislatively; it must also be protected at a technical level.
The First Amendment didn’t create a new ability. It protected an existing one. Without a printing press in every town, freedom of the press would have been an absurdity. Google, Facebook and Amazon’s centralized control over the internet have made the First Amendment into just as much of an absurdity.
Centralized control over speech by any organization inevitably leads to government censorship. The only way to protect freedom of speech on the internet is to decentralize the control of big tech companies. As long as Google, Facebook and Amazon can choke off freedom of speech at a moment’s notice, it’s not a question of whether speech on the internet will be censored, but when it will be censored and why.
The only way to protect freedom of speech is to break up the centralized power of Big Tech.