The following is an edited excerpt from a letter in which I was putting forward my position on why social media deserve to be censored; an about face on my long-time opinion that censorship is always wrong.
Painful though I think it is, I don’t think Australia is really a liberal democratic society anymore. I think we are closer to an oligarchy, moved in that direction since the 1990s, and still moving there. Not as bad as the USA, but heading in the same direction.
Nor do I believe we have an environment anymore in which voices of reason and authority can effectively counter voices of hate, mischief, or mayhem. The old argument about a marketplace of ideas is dead and ridiculous in the era of social media and anonymous user accounts.
What anonymity on social media platforms has done is enable the most scurrilous hate campaigns because there is no consequence. The coarseness of such behaviour, over time, has begun to legitimise it even for people whose identity is known, like the current US president. It is a devaluation of all that might have been considered liberal democratic, putting us back at the political chicanery of the mid-18th century.
Social media corporations are first and foremost corporations, not altruistic or technology organisations. They should be held accountable, like tobacco companies, for the harm they cause, even if ‘inadvertently’. That means they may not be directly responsible for patron ideas and actions, but they unarguably facilitate the dissemination of those ideas and the actions arising from them. And they encourage a mentality of zero consequence by permitting anonymity. Plus, they assume immunity from any reckoning. That has never been the case for any other kind of corporation, no matter how hard reactionaries have argued for laissez faire. It is the rightful rôle of governments to regulate corporate conduct, and to prosecute breaches of law. In that regard I am in favour of regulating social media to set and enforce codes of conduct and scales of responsibility. The way we did with tobacco companies, auto manufacturers, and almost everyone in the consumer product business.
So what should be regulated and how? I have very definite views: no anonymous user accounts!
Anonymity in social and political spaces is one of the major shifts in our political environments arising from social media. It used to be you had to put your name to your ideas, and could be held accountable for them. Now that this no longer applies, neither does the argument that voices of reason would counter those of unreason.
So, in the absence of that direct accountability, my position is that social media companies should be legally liable for ideas and the actions they encourage as third parties, and that lead to criminal acts, particularly in instances in which the identity of the people using their platforms are obscured. Legally liable for damages and gaol sentences for directors. That would very quickly encourage a change in policy on anonymity and acceptable-use enforcement.
But that is, of course, idealism. The social media corporations don’t give a crap what harm they encourage, facilitate, or cause directly. And in that context I think they should be required to enforce censorship in line with the intent of the laws of the nations in which they operate.
The worst of these companies is not Facebook, but Alphabet/Google. For its unholy alliance with the propaganda vehicle Wikipedia, and for paid search rankings in what is essentially a monopoly business. But Facebook (and Twitter) isn’t far behind. If I had my way, Zuckerberg et al would be held personally liable for any hate crime encouraged, discussed or organized using his vehicle. Particularly if policy and enforcement permits patron identities to be obscured.
[The evidence of Alphabet/Google propaganda/profit motive is extensive and you just have to look, but ask yourself what deals Eric Schmidt made with North Korea (2013) and China (2015) when he travelled there (Schmidt was then executive chairman of Google and Alphabet respectively). For an introduction to what’s wrong with Wikipedia, you could do worse than watching the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers: Everything, According to Wikipedia. For what’s wrong with Facebook you just need to do the most basic investigation of ‘fake news’. For what’s wrong with Twitter just look at the Tim Hunt witch-hunt, which turned out to be factually incorrect and repudiated by people present at the conference where the sexist remarks were alleged to have been made.]
On that basis I think it absolutely desirable to regulate Facebook (and others) to take visible and forthright steps to censor activities on their platforms that would be illegal outside a social media environment. That includes libel and slander laws, racial vilification laws, conspiracy laws, and the gamut of security legislation to which you and I are already subject. And it includes the protections of fair comment, truth, and public interest which are already available to you and me.
It will also require a mind-shift: accusations emanating from social media should never be grounds for punitive actions or changes in policy without oversight and independent verification. Lynch mobs on social media are not rational causes for action.
What’s the difference between my proposed approach, and say, China’s, Iran’s, North Korea’s, or Saudi Arabia’s? None really.
In those dictatorships they use the same arguments we should: the internet is public infrastructure. But here that’s actually true: you and I pay for it, and have owned it (at least the copper part) for the longest time. That means social media corporations are using our infrastructure without charge to make humongous profits. To keep allowing them to do that without charge should entail some obligation. The way we have an obligation to maintain roads, museums, schools, and so on.
My prospective view of these matters in Australia relies, for public benefit outcomes, on us to still be a democracy. That’s still within our grasp. If we don’t piss it away and allow ourselves to be persuaded that only two political parties actually matter, and we have no choice but accept their meagre policy offerings. In my view the ALP and the LPA are really wings of the same party now; there’s no real difference in policy outcomes, no matter the rhetoric.
(An aside here, I think the ALP would find it much more easy to win the next election if Bill Shorten wasn’t its spineless, invisible ‘leader’.)
I guess you could say that my view is that the last people who should be in charge of what should and shouldn’t be said are self-interested corporations. And I favour the state regulating private enterprise, including its functions of ‘free speech’. If it were in my power, I’d outlaw social media activity altogether. As a threat to liberal democracy and social cohesion, even if only by people who game it to be that, like Putin’s Russian hackers.. But that’s a pipe dream. So I focus on what’s actually feasible. Regulate the conduct of private enterprise to adhere to at least some shred of decency and public benefit.