I don’t want to turn this into a free speech blog, though it would be easy to do. There’s so much going on every day. But there were a couple more hot off the presses items I wanted to cite as a final installment in this series.
The first is a report by the New York Times that Facebook may develop a censorship tool to get back into China:
Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.
The current and former Facebook employees caution that the software is one of many ideas the company has discussed with respect to entering China and, like many experiments inside Facebook, it may never see the light of day. The feature, whose code is visible to engineers inside the company, has so far gone unused, and there is no indication that Facebook has offered it to the authorities in China.
But the project illustrates the extent to which Facebook may be willing to compromise one of its core mission statements, “to make the world more open and connected,” to gain access to a market of 1.4 billion Chinese people.
Again, the risk of bad news collaborations between these major social media companies and governments is real.
A second one is from right here in New York. The MTA, New York’s transit agency, as a government entity can’t discriminate in who is allowed to advertise on the subways. A while back it did not want to run some ads from provocateur Pam Geller. Because it couldn’t legally single her out, it decided to simply ban all ads it deemed political.
You know what happened next. As Alan Dershowitz put it, censorship started “spreading like a virus.” The MTA started banning a number of ads, including a pro-Muslim one and an ad warning about wage theft that the Freelancers Union wanted to run. Well just this week the MTA banned an ad campaign by its own union, claiming it was political. This ad featured pictures of workers injured or assaulted on the job.
One can argue that these are indeed “political,” but how many advertisements don’t have some sort of embedded political message? The city itself runs ads touting its own programs constantly. In effect, we’ve got a system where the government can promote itself, but critics aren’t allowed to speak back.
We tend to take our own right to free speech for granted while often not sympathizing with people who have unpopular messages we don’t like. That’s how principles get established that ultimately undermine our own speech. Keeping a wary eye on any form of censorship, by government, big corporation, or online hate mob, is critical to preserving our own freedoms.