Seeing the diversity of opinions online, it’s sometimes easy for the average user to forget that freedom of speech is not a universally held value. Not so for global tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google who are increasingly finding themselves setting the standards for online free speech, whether they like it or not.
As private entities, tech companies have control over what they put on their platforms within the bounds of locally applicable law — essentially creating codes of conduct as part of their End User Licensing Agreements defining how it expects users to behave on their sites. However, most of the decisions about what is and is not allowed end up being made by handful of employees who manage content policies, whom Jeffrey Rosen calls “the Deciders” in a recent feature for the New Republic. But for these “Deciders,” it’s often not clear where the line should be drawn on offensive speech and who it must be drawn against:
Some Deciders see a solution in limiting the nuance involved in their protocols, so that only truly dangerous content is removed from circulation. But other parties have very different ideas about what’s best for the Web. Increasingly, some of the Deciders have become convinced that the greatest threats to free speech during the next decade will come not just from authoritarian countries like China, Russia, and Iran, who practice political censorship and have been pushing the United Nations to empower more of it, but also from a less obvious place: European democracies contemplating broad new laws that would require Internet companies to remove posts that offend the dignity of an individual, group, or religion.
While the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution declaring freedom of expression online a human right, from outright desire for control in authoritarian regimes to concern about whether individuals should have a “right to be forgotten” in democratic nations, the allure of censorship can be hard to fight. The pull is enough that Google’s 2012 Transparency Report revealed government requests to remove content more than doubled since 2011. Even users aren’t entirely clear about what they want: In a recent survey of internet users in several Arab counties, 61 percent agreed people should be able to express their opinions online “no matter what those opinions might be,” but 50 percent also agreed the internet in their countries should be more tightly regulated.
Many tech companies have already staked out a claim on the side of freedom. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a non-governmental organization which counts Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft among its members, works to further global freedom of expression and privacy rights online. It’s most recent report warned of a “wave of troubling legislative proposals threaten rights to free expression and privacy in both repressive regimes and democratic societies, as do the efforts of some governments to increase their control over the Internet through intergovernmental processes.”
But decrying that wave doesn’t by itself make the internet a safer place for freedom of expression. While the “Decider” model can be used to keep controversial speech online, it has its own limitations. As Nicole Wong, now the “Decider” at Twitter, told Rosen five years ago while working in a similar role at Google, “the Decider model is inconsistent[...] The Internet is big, and Google isn’t the only one making these decisions.”
An earlier version of this post listed Twitter and Facebook as GNI members. Twitter is not a member and Facebook is currently an observer of the group.