Music streaming service Spotify has implemented political censorship on its platform, marking another step in the transition of neutral online platforms to moral censors. It has begun with an easy target, white nationalist bands. Who could object to the censorship of white nationalists?
The music streaming platform recently banned the skinhead band Bully Boys, a band who describe their music as “aggravated Dixie rock-n-roll with a hateful twist” and complain about “degenerate filth infiltrating and influencing good white kids.”
They aren’t pleasant, in other words. But Spotify still has no business censoring them.
The first and foremost reason is that it is an infantilization of its millions of users. By removing our freedom to choose to avoid the Bully Boys, Spotify implies that we are incapable of making the right moral choices. But why wouldn’t we?
Brave academics like Nicholas Wade and Robert Plomin show that it’s possible to have a peaceful, nuanced discussion of race and genetics. The Bully Boys occupy the opposite end of the spectrum: uncivilized, uneducated, and violent. Spotify’s decision implies that its users can’t make that simple distinction.
Furthermore, your author is from a mixed Pakistani-English descent. If white nationalists had their way, I wouldn’t exist. And then there would be no-one to bring internet humor and three-day Shia LaBeouf streams to Breitbart (Milo would probably be executed for degeneracy too). That alone should be reason enough for everyone to shun white nationalist bands.
Another problem with Spotify’s censorship is that it robs us of the ability to critique the arguments contained in the lyrics of white nationalist bands. It’s an attack on its users’ intellect as well as their moral compasses.
In 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended the right of a Neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. The ACLU couldn’t have been further from the ideals of Neo-Nazis, but the liberal civil liberties campaigners of the day understood what many on today’s progressive left do not: that free speech is meaningless unless it is extended to those who we vehemently disagree with.
There are those who will argue that Spotify is a private business and can censor whoever it likes. Legally, they certainly can. But should they? The fact that a company that acts as a communications conduit for millions of internet users believes it can suddenly switch from neutral platform to moral and political arbiter with so little controversy suggests that free speech is not valued as much as it ought to be. In a society with strong culturally libertarian values, fear of public outcry would have made Spotify think twice.
Spotify’s decision is a confirmation of Aaron Swartz’s increasingly prophetic warning: that corporate censorship should be a subject of concern. Before the activist and Reddit co-developer committed suicide, he warned that private platforms that presided over the speech of millions would become a key battleground for the anti-censorship movement.
Both the government and private companies can censor stuff. But private companies are a little bit scarier. They have no constitution to answer to. They’re not elected. They have no constituents or voters. All of the protections we’ve built up to protect against government tyranny don’t exist for corporate tyranny.
Is the internet going to stay free? Are private companies going to censor [the] websites I visit, or charge more to visit certain websites? Is the government going to force us to not visit certain websites? And when I visit these websites, are they going to constrain what I can say, to only let me say certain types of things, or steer me to certain types of pages? All of those are battles that we’ve won so far, and we’ve been very lucky to win them. But we could quite easily lose, so we need to stay vigilant.
The rise of censorship on platforms like Reddit and now Spotify are proving his warning right. Of course the censorship starts with Nazis, misogynists, and other assorted bigots. But where does it end?