Someone must have been telling lies about Jordan Peterson, he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was locked out of his Google accounts. He’d had those accounts for 15 years, which included a popular YouTube channel where he posted hundreds of videos and attracted more than 367,000 subscribers. But now he couldn’t access anything.
For hours, the University of Toronto psychologist tried in vain to have his accounts reinstated. “After review, your account is not eligible to be reinstated due to a violation of our terms of service,” an email from Google stated unhelpfully. He had violated some principle—but what? “Please tell me what principle I have violated,” Peterson entreated as he tried to sort out the situation. “I have not violated any terms that I am aware of and have not misused my account.”
Peterson’s request was met with a series of cryptic digital messages that essentially said the matter was being handled and there was nothing more that he could do. After some time—with no specific reasons given—his accounts were reinstated as abruptly and mysteriously as they had been revoked.
Here’s the images for the shutdown sequence. pic.twitter.com/5elHuAE6DS
— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) August 1, 2017
Many of Peterson’s supporters, myself included, instinctively cried “censorship!” While it remains possible that Hanlon’s Razor could be applied in this case and that we shouldn’t ascribe malice to a situation that could be explained away by either user error or incompetence, the timing makes the whole situation suspicious.
Just the day before, Google had announced with great fanfare that it would crack down on terrorist activity on its networks by implementing more algorithmic, user- and committee-based-matrices to flag objectionable videos. Google also threw in—as if it were related—that it would also take a harder stance on speech and content that violates none of its guidelines, but is, nonetheless, somehow flagged by users and special interest groups as incendiary:
We’ll soon be applying tougher treatment to videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism. If we find that these videos don’t violate our policies but contain controversial religious or supremacist content, they will be placed in a limited state. The videos will remain on YouTube behind an interstitial, won’t be recommended, won’t be monetized, and won’t have key features including comments, suggested videos, and likes…” (Emphasis added.)
Of course, they’d been doing that for a while. Late last year, the Prager University YouTube channel—an extremely successful channel with more than 130 million views, founded by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager to provide informational videos about American values—had some of its videos placed behind an “age appropriate” wall, limiting their reach and requiring a click-thru. Videos that were initially flagged as inappropriate included such NC-17 material as “Israel’s Legal Founding,” “Did Bush Lie About Iraq?”, “What ISIS Wants,” and “Why Did America Fight the Korean War.” Prager University tried working quietly behind the scenes with Google before going public with its frustrations. “In response to an official complaint . . . Google specialists defended their restriction of our videos, and said, ‘We don’t censor anyone,’ although they do ‘take into consideration what the intent of the video is’ and ‘what the focus of the video is.’”
Google Drops the Façade
I applaud Google. Not for the policy, but for the company’s burgeoning honesty and move towards ideological transparency. Google, like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, has been policing content for a while in one form or another. Now it’s official stated policy. Gone is the “We Do not Censor” façade. Google is now openly in the editorial business and all too happy to advertise its censorship—except don’t you dare call it censorship. I believe the preferred euphemism is “information curation.”
Even if content doesn’t strictly violate the company’s policies, if an employee or special interest group doesn’t like certain content or a particular point of view, it may be sent to a “naughty corner” and made as inaccessible as possible. Further, coordinated mass flagging, where bots or groups of people simultaneously flag videos can cause content to be limited as well. Edit or change the content to comply with an accepted point of view and it’s accessible to everyone again. Why Google (or Facebook or Twitter) doesn’t simply drop the pretense and refuse to publish articles and videos the company finds objectionable is anyone’s guess. At this point, the content discrimination question is one of degree, not a matter of principle.
But it’s not “real” censorship unless the government does it—right? The First Amendment proclaims loudly and clearly that freedom of speech, press, and assembly cannot be taken away by the state. Our government is bound by the Bill of Rights; a private corporation such as Google is not. No one is stopping Peterson from speaking, or Prager from making videos. And for the moment, Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t risk prison for his outrageous tweets.
Yet these cases call into question the idea that only the state may play censor.
We live at a time when the vast majority of people freely turn over their private information to—and get most of their news and information from—a handful of very large corporations. What happens when those politically connected companies start censoring speech?
The concern isn’t new, but the solutions are elusive. Oddly enough, former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg both have argued that some digital services, such as search engines and social networks, should be treated and regulated as public utilities. If Google effectively has a monopoly on search traffic, and Facebook (and possibly Twitter) dominant the social network world, and they have extensive entanglements with political power and government at every level, then it’s fair to wonder whether corporate censorship has First Amendment implications.
Google may not be an arm of the government, but when a company becomes so intertwined with government and political entities, it could be seen as acting as a surrogate without any of the usual legal or constitutional checks. Google—and companies like it—project a correct and acceptable ideological alignment with the political powers-that-be. They can effectively engage in political censorship without the constraint of that pesky Bill of Rights.
Unlike Jordan Peterson, who has a large enough following that allows him to effectively publicize and help resolve his problem with Google, most of us are at the mercy of the search giant and its notoriously ideological and taciturn bureaucracy. Imagine the disruption in your digital life if you were locked out of all your email, documents, and YouTube accounts with no way to reinstate them. Add to this, the possibility that purely political content might trigger such a lock-out and the effects on speech become apparent.
The answers to these issues are all thorny. Let’s be honest, the simple market based solution to “choose another search engine, social media or online video provider” is not really an option at this point. Google and Facebook are the only real players. Sure, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Ello, Vimeo, and other outlets exist, but few people actually consider them as true rivals to the services offered by Google, Facebook and Twitter. This, of course, makes resisting the siren’s call for regulation all the more difficult.
Ultimately, however, a regulatory schema for search engines,YouTube ratings and monetization, and public social network speech would be heavy handed at best and oppressive at worst. A top-down, online “Fairness Doctrine” is also out a bad idea. When were the federal “fairness” metrics ever fair? Instead, we should turn our attention to requiring that corporate entities, especially if they become large enough to render goods and services that are considered essential and indispensable to modern life, adhere to some of the the same basic standards of fairness and equality of opportunity we expect of our government. They are, after all, essentially the governing bodies of the online world—providing the infrastructure that we use and policing our behavior while in that world.
If we are to eventually address the issue legally, we should first reexamine it socially. A good starting point would be to reconsider our notions of online spaces and move from viewing the largest,most trafficked ones as private products to public forums and demanding that the corporations providing those adhere to spirit of first amendment.
For better or worse, the online world and experiences in that world are becoming as important to people as the real one. We buy our goods online, meet our spouses online, share thoughts, break up and find meaning online. We live online. A recent study revealed that teens don’t distinguish between online experiences and real world ones when it comes to social interaction. As the technology becomes more prevalent this trend will continue even more. We should thus take very seriously the idea that people today have digital lives and rethink what protections are necessary to allow those digital lives to continue with freedom and the pursuit of happiness with minimal disruptions, especially from either government or corporate intrusion and censorship.