As Republicans at the latest debate tossed around ideas to stop ISIS’s presence on the social media, from more closely monitoring America’s posts to shutting down the entire Internet, the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was spouting very similar rhetoric. In a speech at the University of Minnesota, she declared that “the tech community and the government have to stop seeing each other as adversaries,” and find ways to work together.
With the San Bernardino shootings still fresh in everyone’s mind, the idea that social networks should be monitoring and rooting out extremism on their platforms is a simple solution that makes you feel safe and protected–but it’s too easy, and the implications are far more dangerous. “Social media companies shouldn’t take on the job of censoring speech on behalf of any government, and they certainly shouldn’t do so voluntarily,” says Danny O’Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “These kinds of speech restrictions set online platforms on a very slippery slope.”
“It is also a question with considerable First Amendment implications,” said the New York Times. “Company executives say removing YouTube videos of beheadings is an easy call; removing critiques of the West, or calls for religious purity, is not.”
One might also wonder why intelligence agencies don’t employ this same technology, and just arrest the perpetrators. It might be down to the fact that you can’t just arrest somebody if you don’t like what they say. “It’s particularly worrisome that we’re not even talking here about speech that’s actually been found unlawful,” says the O’Brien.
Asking private entities to police the world’s information flow sounds impossible, but even if it were possible on a technical level, things quickly turns into a moral mess. “Who defines “terrorism”?” says O’Brien. It seems obvious that we should block political hate speech, but only because we don’t like the message. What if that message was the criticism of western governments, or of prominent contributors to political campaigns?
“Does Facebook, for example, intend to enforce its policies only against those that the United States government describes as terrorists, or will it also respond if Russia says someone is a terrorist?” says O’Brien. “Israel? Saudi Arabia? Syria? The same questions apply to the speech that might be targeted.”
O’Brien’s “slippery slope” refers to terrorism specifically, but the consequences could be much worse. Encouraging private companies to censor on behalf of the government sets a dangerous precedent. Once the mechanisms of censorship are in place, it becomes much easier to expand their reach, to silence a noisy minority here, or a government whistleblower there.
Private companies doing government dirty work sounds a lot like what goes on in China, or in other totalitarian regimes. And unlike the government, which is supposed to have a responsibility to be transparent, private entities can censor silently, with nobody but the censored party even noticing that it happens.
“While Facebook and other companies have become clearer about explicit government takedown requests through their transparency reports,” says O’Brien, “these ‘voluntary’ content removals and user deletions in response to explicit political pressure is much much harder to track.”
The U.S. Government has a history of pressuring private tech companies to provide information on their customers, in secret. Secure email service Lavabit closed down in May last year rather than hand the company’s encryption keys over to the federal government, and install surveillance equipment on its network. These requests were made under a seal preventing Lavabit’s owner Ladar Levison from discussing them with anyone but a lawyer. Big companies like Apple are also regular targets of similar requests for user data.
Transparency and the light of publicity, though, sends these same government agencies back into the shadows, where they operate more comfortably. “Companies that already routinely notify users have found that investigators often drop data demands to avoid having suspects learn of inquiries,” says the Washington Post’s Craig Timberg [emphasis added].
It’s not hard to imagine similar requests, also made in secret, for purposes of censorship. Hopefully Silicon Valley will resist, but given that the platforms most likely to be used for true terrorist recruitment and communication—Facebook and Google’s YouTube—are also the companies that amass huge amounts of data on their users as part of their business models, it seems unlikely that politicians like Clinton will stop the pressure.