On hate speech, social media companies are enthusiastically liking, retweeting, and faving national governments. In December, the German government announced that they had secured the co-operation of Facebook, Google and Twitter in removing “hate speech” from their platforms. A wave of censorship followed.
Why have web firms been persuaded to give up their original free-speech ideals? Governments haven’t passed any laws requiring Silicon Valley to march to their drum. So why are Facebook, Twitter and Google doing so anyway?
The mad progressivism of their Bay Area CEOs probably has something to do with it. But there’s another reason: Governments have become increasingly adept at intimidating companies without using the law.
In 2011, liberal scholar and Net Neutrality activist Tim Wu published an essay entitled “Agency Threats,” discussing how best to regulate companies. In his essay, Wu argued that passing legislation was not, in fact, the most efficient way to pressure web firms (he would soon be proven right during the SOPA and PIPA protests, in which web firms mobilised their vast userbase to cripple a major congressional attempt at web copyright reform.)
Instead, Wu advocated “Rule by Threat” to force companies to capitulate to the government. Wu’s study suggested that regulatory agencies didn’t just have to use adjudication or official rule making processes to get what they wanted, but could force companies to bend to their will by simply threatening them. Most importantly, he suggested that these “threats” worked best for companies rolling out “newly invented technologies or business models” (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and Google).
Today, governments’ attention has turned from copyright to speech. With a rising tide of anti-immigration, anti-establishment populism on both sides of the Atlantic, national governments are waking up to the consequence of letting their citizens speak freely on the web for all these years. While there is no sign that they’re planning to pass new laws to force social media companies to obey them, there’s plenty of evidence that Wu’s “Rule by Threat” doctrine is already in play.
It isn’t the first time the government has used threats to get what it wants. Outside the realm of tech, the Office For Civil Rights’ infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011, sent out to every college administration in the country, warned that colleges that did not comply with their demand to water down due process in sexual assault cases on campus could face cuts to their federal funding.
The result was four years of panic as colleges scrambled to fight against the government’s “rape culture” boogeyman – a panic that has resulted in the Rolling Stone scandal, as well as dozens of lawsuits from students who feel their due process rights have been violated. Tech companies are now fighting another of the government’s boogeymen: hate speech. Similarly disastrous results are sure to follow.
On November 17th, 2014, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was asked by representative Bobby Rush about how the government could regulate social media to prevent outbreaks of violence by making it more difficult for potentially violent individuals to co-ordinate. In response, Wheeler emphasised that he did not have, and did not intend to seek jurisdiction over companies like Facebook. He rejected suggestions from representatives that the government step in and shut down communications channels if they were being used in an “offensive, inappropriate” way.
However, Wheeler added that he would use his “bully pulpit” to pressure Zuckerberg, and promised to call him that very day. It’s a tactic seemingly emulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was caught on tape last September pressuring Zuckerberg over “hate speech against immigrants” on Facebook.
Have their efforts paid off? Well, look at the results. Wheeler was asked to pressure Zuckerberg to help curtail violence, and only this January, Facebook and its sister site Instagram announced they would curtail gun sales on their networks. In September, the German Chancellor asked Zuckerberg to deal with “hate speech against migrants,” and a few months later, Facebook announces it would work with German authorities to deal with hate speech against migrants. “Rule by Threat” is working.
We should continue to hold Silicon Valley CEOs’ feet to the fire over their blatant progressive biases. But we also shouldn’t fall to the illusion that new CEOs alone would solve the problem. Conservative or politically neutral CEOs would also feel the pressure of national governments to conform.