As the founding fathers of the US understood, limiting speech and expression is a slippery slope. The recent controversy about statues and other symbols is an example of how slippery. Confederate flags are offensive, so get rid of them. But what about statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate personalities? Also offensive, so tear them down too. Andrew Jackson was a racist and guilty of genocide, so take him off the US $20 bill. Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist who went to Princeton, and his name and likeness are all over it; erase him. As Trump pointed out, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves (and held viciously racist beliefs); should their pictures and statues be removed too? Where do you stop? And who decides?
How dare I agree with Trump about anything? Because this time he’s right. But although the removal of symbols is particularly ominous – to me, it reeks of the Taliban, of Stalinism, of 1984’s Ingsoc – the limitation of speech is more immediately dangerous. Events like the shouting down of Charles Murray by students at Middlebury College represent a growing trend in which certain ideas are considered sufficiently objectionable that it becomes acceptable to use force to prevent their expression.
I started my first blog because I had things to say that weren’t popular locally. No big deal, just that my Jewish friends mostly found Israel an embarrassment, while non-Jews thought my obsession with defending it was boring. One day I was reminded of this remark by newspaperman A. J. Liebling,
Freedom of the Press Is Guaranteed Only to Those Who Own One
and I decided to get my own “press.” The Internet made it possible. I couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper or a radio or TV station, and even if I could, I doubt that I could do what I wanted with it and stay in business. But a blog costs nothing and can reach hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people.
Of course it’s not that easy, and I never achieved that degree of success. But I can say exactly what I want to say, and anyone who wants to read it can do so.
Unsurprisingly, the absolute freedom of the Internet has led to it being used for incitement to murder, invasion of privacy and other things which go far beyond the boundaries of legitimate speech. And even more unsurprisingly, those who want to shut up or shout down voices that they simply don’t like are using this fact as an excuse to impose their will on everyone.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), anything but a “conservative” organization, recently criticized three of the most influential companies providing internet services after they acted to take the neo-Nazi website “Daily Stormer” down:
In the wake of Charlottesville, both GoDaddy and Google have refused to manage the domain registration for the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is “dedicated to spreading anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism.” Subsequently Cloudflare, whose service was used to protect the site from denial-of-service attacks, has also dropped them as a customer, with a telling quote from Cloudflare’s CEO: “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.” We agree.
Cloudflare’s CEO may have had regrets, but he didn’t shrink from using what he recognized as his excessive power. While it’s impossible to defend the Daily Stormer, we’re starting down the slippery slope here as well. EFF continues,
…we strongly believe that what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did here was dangerous. That’s because, even when the facts are the most vile, we must remain vigilant when platforms exercise these rights. Because Internet intermediaries, especially those with few competitors, control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world. And at EFF we see the consequences first hand: every time a company throws a vile neo-Nazi site off the Net, thousands of less visible decisions are made by companies with little oversight or transparency. [my emphasis]
I can personally attest to this. This blog, Abu Yehuda, is blocked by default by Sky, the second largest ISP in Britain (and probably the largest provider of mobile Internet services there). The reason given is content about “weapons.” As I pointed out to them, while I often write about things like Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons, I don’t tell anyone how to construct them at home. But someone apparently found my message objectionable enough to complain, and Sky blocked the site. This has happened over and over to pro-Israel blogs, so either someone within the company is deliberately blocking these sites, or their procedures don’t include verifying complaints before taking action.
In a worrisome development, Google is partnering with several liberal organizations to help “document hate crimes and events.” This sounds reasonable, until you note that one of Google’s partners is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which – according to Robert Spencer (not to be confused with neo-Nazi Richard Spencer!), has lumped together “groups such as Jihad Watch, [The American Freedom Defense Initiative], the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the Center for Security Policy with the KKK and neo-Nazis.”
SPLC focuses very heavily on right-wing groups and goes easy on radical left-wing ones. While its “hate map” has separate categories for anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, KKK, neo-Nazi, black separatist, Christian identity, racist skinhead, white nationalist, radical traditional Catholicism, hate music, and Holocaust denial groups, there is no entry for radical Islam (those few Muslim groups that do appear are found under “general hate”), and none for anti-Jewish (other than Holocaust denial) or anti-Zionist organizations. Daniel Greenfield’s blog, “Sultan Knish” is included as a “hate group,” but Ammar Shahin, the Davis California Imam who called from his pulpit for Muslims to murder Jews is not on their list of “extremists.”
SPLC, incidentally, is also a prime mover in the movement to remove confederate monuments, which makes sense for an organization whose goal seems to be to stop the expression of views that it dislikes.
Another Google partner is ProPublica, which vows to diligently track “hate incidents” in the coming months. “Everyday people — not just avowed ‘white nationalists’ — intimidate, harass, humiliate and even harm their fellow Americans because of the color of their skin, how they worship or who they love,” they say. One could be excused from wondering if an article critical of Islamic ideology or denying that people have an inalienable right to the gender of their choice will be interpreted as a “hate incident.”
ProPublica created a list of websites that the ADL or SPLC consider hate or extremist. Then they took 70 of the most popular sites on the list and surveyed whether and how they were “monetized,” i.e., whether they ran ads, accepted donations, and so forth. The intention, although it is unstated, is to pressure the companies providing ads or payment processing to drop these sites as customers.
These organizations have created a category of vaguely defined “hate speech,” speech that is offensive – particularly to favored groups like Muslims. The next step is to enforce their version of political correctness.
But who is to decide? If it’s “hate speech” to warn (as several of the sites on the list do) that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to Islamize the United States, then isn’t the viciously anti-Israel site Electronic Intifada (which is not on ProPublica’s list) also employing hate speech when it calls Israel an apartheid state or accuse it of genocide?
I don’t think SPLC, ProPublica or left-leaning tech companies like Google ought to control my speech. The American founding fathers had the right idea. Hate speech has been made illegal in many countries, but the US has always insisted that no matter how vile their words, the government may not interfere with the freedom of expression enjoyed by neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, and others like them. Unfortunately, Internet companies are not the government and can legally place restrictions on speech – even though today they may have a greater effect on free expression than the government could!
It’s true that the openness of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. But it’s a mistake to allow some political violence – of which there was more in the 1960s and 70s than there is today – to be the Reichstag Fire that will force us to knuckle under to the totalitarian vision of the PC Left.
I own my printing press and I’m not going to give it up.