Whenever a for-profit – or even non-profit – organization professes to do good, to be a society’s guardian – as Google has – I feel queasy. It’s not that I think Google (or more generally corporations, NGOs, charities, even churches) is inherently evil. It’s just that no non-government entity owes society at large a fiduciary duty 1 per se, as governments do.
Take as a case study Google – that self professed guardian of Freedom.
In the aftermath of the recent violence in Benghazi, Google has taken itself to task to block access to inflammatory videos that may have caused the violence.
According to the New York Times:
As violence spread in the Arab world over a video on YouTube ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, Google, the owner of YouTube, blocked access to it in two of the countries in turmoil, Egypt and Libya, but did not remove the video from its Web site.
Google said it decided to block the video in response to violence that killed four American diplomatic personnel in Libya. The company said its decision was unusual, made because of the exceptional circumstances. Its policy is to remove content only if it is hate speech, violating its terms of service, or if it is responding to valid court orders or government requests. And it said it had determined that under its own guidelines, the video was not hate speech.
WAIT. Has Google become GOD himself?
If I am to distrust government from blocking information, why should I trust for-profit companies to decide what information I access? What gives Google the free reign to set the norm on proper and improper information?
Here we have a video mocking Islam and by extension Muslims in general, yet Google – with a policy against “hate speech” – can say with a straight face it’s not “hate speech.”
Here we have a company that has stated it will respond to all “valid court orders or government requests” to block information (and has blocked information worldwide (read for example, also, this policy statement)), yet when it comes to China, in its very public exit from china, it would openly flaunt Chinese court orders and government requests as “not valid.”
You know we have a problem when a for-profit company, in the name of “freedom,” has the cache to decide the fates of nations – to flaunt the governments of nations. In the case of China, it’s not just any nation, but a nation with a long and mature political history, with a government that commands an overwhelming support of its people, a government credited with bringing more people out of poverty than any other in human history.
Millions of people across the Muslim world, though, viewed the video as one of the most inflammatory pieces of content to circulate on the Internet. From Afghanistan to Libya, the authorities have been scrambling to contain an outpouring of popular outrage over the video and calling on the United States to take measures against its producers.
Google’s action raises fundamental questions about the control that Internet companies have over online expression. Should the companies themselves decide what standards govern what is seen on the Internet? How consistently should these policies be applied?
“Google is the world’s gatekeeper for information so if Google wants to define the First Amendment to exclude this sort of material then there’s not a lot the rest of the world can do about it,” said Peter Spiro, a constitutional and international law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “It makes this episode an even more significant one if Google broadens the block.”
He added, though, that “provisionally,” he thought Google made the right call. “Anything that helps calm the situation, I think is for the better.”
“This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube,” [Google] said. “However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”
ANYTHING TO CALM THE SITUATION?
When the situation became tense in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, etc., where were the calls for Google or Facebook or Twitter to play a calming role?
When riots broke out in Tibet in 2008 or Xinjiang in 2009, many in the West actually appeared to want to goad the protesters on. Many slammed Chinese efforts to clamp down on rumors and inflammatory speech in affected areas, calling Chinese efforts oppressive.
It appears to me that arguments about “freedom of speech” is inevitably never about “freedom” per se, but about the politics underneath the rhetoric of “freedom.” When it’s about Syria, Libya, Tunisia, China, where bad consequences doesn’t matter (might even be desired!), incendiary inflammation should be allowed, freed, encouraged, even sponsored. But when American lives or American interests are at stake, we need to be responsible. Everyone needs to get on the same page on what need to be done.
The truth is: speech is really only “free” when it is desirable for you, or when it causes no real damage to you – is of no consequence to you.
You may say, hold on, I truly feel “neutral” about speech. My support for freedom of speech is conceptual. I don’t care about the substance of speech.
I argue back, ok, even when you feel you are disinterested, you can afford to be indifferent only to the extent you don’t feel the pain of the speech. When speech does hit you, things change fast.
This is why even the most staunch advocates of free speech inevitably draw the line somewhere, whether it be “hate speech,” speech that is inflammatory, that incites violence, or that creates a danger to public peace or national security. When the politics of speech really hits home, speech becomes no longer just “speech.” Causing consequences that matter, they become actions and conducts that are just as regulable as any other action and conduct.
Next time someone takes the moral high ground on freedom of speech, listen carefully. Is he really a big-hearted sage – or a bigot who is indifferent, even callous, to others’ circumstances, who jumps at the chance to abstract away politics into empty euphmisms of freedom, without any understanding their impact on people’s lives?
- The purpose (legal duty even) of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders. The obligation of non-profits is to their sponsors and donors … and incestuously to itself. The duty of churches is – well if you are pious – to God, although often a God who cares only for a segment of society, who may be so hateful of the rest as to condemn them all to eternities of hell. ↩