The year was 2016, and despite what could be described as an epidemic of celebrities dying, things–compared to now, at least–seemed totally normal, somehow. Maybe even idyllic. Back in those simpler days, you could see the great pains that technology companies took to prove that they were mere neutral platforms.
In the wake of a Gizmodo story from May 2016 alleging that Facebook’s news editors were told to not highlight right-leaning content, the company shot back that, actually, it was totally neutral. Facebook, the company said in its defense, is a platform. “We’re not interested in adding our point of view–we actually don’t think that works for a billion people,” said Facebook to the Verge.
And that was what every other social and sharing-economy tool at the time was saying to eschew responsibility and regulation in the name of eyeballs and clicks and growth. In any case, Facebook’s solution to the appearance of bias was to invite conservative power players to Palo Alto and turn to algorithms, and it was this software that bots exploited to peddle fake news throughout the rest of 2016. Even as its own employees decried the company’s role in Donald Trump’s election—a role about which government investigators have also raised questions—Mark Zuckerberg contended, however reluctantly, that the company was still, ultimately, a neutral tech platform.
Now, in the year of our Lord 2017, things have changed. But it wasn’t until this week that we glimpsed a deeper shift afoot in Silicon Valley. In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville rallies, where white supremacists were able to come together primarily online, technology platforms are finally cracking down.
Here’s a quick rundown:
- GoDaddy denied the white supremacist website Daily Stormer domain registration, after insisting for months that it would not censor content.
- Google did the same.
- So did WordPress.
- Facebook too is cracking down on linked white supremacist content, and has even began to delete white nationalist accounts over hate speech.
- Airbnb canceled reservations for white nationalists trying to travel to Charlottesville.
- PayPal said it wouldn’t do business with hate groups.
- Uber banned two white supremacists from using the ride-hailing app after a driver overheard a racist conversation.
- The chat app Discord has banned white supremacist channels.
- Even CloudFlare, the content distribution service that protects websites from hacking and DDoS attacks, changed its long-held tune on protecting white supremacist sites: It stopped providing service to Daily Stormer.
All of these are important (and necessary) judgment calls by the platforms, and they do away with the neutrality security blanket. They also signal a new interpretation of their various terms of service agreements: neither Facebook, Google, WordPress, Airbnb, or any of the other platforms have changed their written policies since Charlottesville, even as they’ve taken more stringent steps to curb hate speech.
The moves were undoubtedly prompted by the rallies in Charlottesville, which fanned the flames of white supremacy and nationalism into a full-fledged inferno of violence. These groups’ content may now qualify as “directly threatening material,” or similar categories forbidden by companies’ user agreements, which are, in any case, always up to reinterpretation by those companies.
We’ve seen small examples like these decisions for years—with Milo Yiannopoulos being booted off Twitter for harassment, and Facebook announcing a crackdown on “fake news”— but never has there been such a seemingly coordinated action. It makes sense, too: Private companies that claim to foster inclusive values should have their business models follow suit. Yet in this new era we’re living in, the blatant racism of this past weekend has forced these organizations to take stances that their investors would have balked at years ago.
This will surely play into reactionary fears. With far-right people crying foul over Google firing engineer James Damore over a controversial internal memo, more examples of cohesive Silicon Valley “ideology” is coming to light. Free speech is being infringed, they say, over the left’s PC politics. Does this mean that Silicon Valley companies have an ideology? Not necessarily. In fact, probably not. These are necessary, moral moves–and they are surely driven by an marked uptick in public outcry.
But the platforms’ recent decisions do show that the techno-utopian idea of a neutral platform can sometimes create a dystopia for others. More importantly, it does away with the pesky neutrality science fiction, and forces these companies to take more responsibility over how their carefully designed platforms work, and how they’re actually used.