Jeffrey Rosen reports on a recent meeting of the tech industry’s free speech gatekeepers — and, yes, they exist:
It took place in the faculty lounge, where participants were sustained in their deliberations by bagels and fruit platters. Among the roughly two-dozen attendees, the most important were a group of fresh-faced tech executives, some of them in t-shirts and unusual footwear, who are in charge of their companies’ content policies. Their positions give these young people more power over who gets heard around the globe than any politician or bureaucrat—more power, in fact, than any president or judge.
Collectively, the tech leaders assembled that day in Palo Alto might be called “the Deciders,” in a tribute to Nicole Wong, the legal director of Twitter, whose former colleagues affectionately bestowed on her the singular version of that nickname while she was deputy general counsel at Google. At the dawn of the Internet age, some of the nascent industry’s biggest players staked out an ardently hands-off position on hate speech; Wong was part of the generation that discovered firsthand how untenable this extreme libertarian position was. In one representative incident, she clashed with the Turkish government over its demands that YouTube take down videos posted by Greek soccer fans claiming that Kemal Ataturk was gay. Wong and her colleagues at Google agreed to block access to the clips in Turkey, where insulting the country’s founder is illegal, but Turkish authorities—who insisted on a worldwide ban—responded by denying their citizens access to the whole site for two years. “I’m taking my best guess at what will allow our products to move forward in a country,” she told me in 2008. The other Deciders, who don’t always have Wong’s legal training, have had to make their own guesses, each with ramifications for their company’s bottom line.
Never mind the slam that free speech is an “untenable… extreme libertarian position.”
No… wait… mind it. Mind it a lot. Because that’s the whole point right there, isn’t it? Publications like TNR, which consider themselves gently liberal, represent the values espoused by the universities which trained the people who now get to call themselves “The Deciders.”
And The Deciders decide just how much your free speech will give way to government pressure. Or to political correctness. Or to, well, whatever, I suppose.
Now the last thing I’m going to do is propose we replace The Deciders with a panel or a commission or a study group or something at the FCC. That would make a bad situation far worse.
But be picky about what services you use — especially the free ones. Because unless you’re paying real cash money, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. And product doesn’t have any voice, free or otherwise.