Those of us calling for tech platforms like Google to do a better job policing hate speech, piracy and online rip-offs got a welcome surprise last month when the European Union enacted “Article 13” reforms requiring more proactive management of the internet. The victory was all the more impressive since it came despite a massive Google-funded online disinformation campaign falsely claiming Article 13 would hinder free speech and undermine creativity and freedom on the internet.
These were grave claims. Google-funded groups argued Article 13 would “seriously affect” fundamental rights and pasted Twitter with graphic ads asserting the proposal would ban memes. The CEO of Google’s YouTube claimed it would ban videos of “language classes and science tutorials.”
They are also bogus — Google can shut down child pornography, terrorist recruitment, and online piracy of music and films without any meaningful burden on real speech or the freedom of its legitimate users — and disingenuous. Google is not motivated by concern for online freedom; it is driven by the almighty dollar and its globe-spanning bottom line.
After all, if the company truly values free expression, why is it secretly working on a censored search engine with the Chinese government, “Project Dragonfly”?
The Dragonfly project reportedly involves building a China-only search engine that would block sensitive information and let authorities identify citizens who searched for outlawed topics. Thousands of western websites would be off-limits, including recent history like the Tiananmen Square protests. Imagine a version of Google image search that returns nothing when a user searches for “tank man.”
Last year Google employees revolted, with more than 1,000 Googlers signing a letter urging the company to abandon Dragonfly. But new reports suggest the company has revived the project — unwilling to let go of the massive trough of money and data waiting on the other side of the Chinese firewall. The company has denied the project is still alive, but employees have questioned that.
The fact of the matter is Google’s protests about Article 13 and any other call for platform responsibility have never been about the First Amendment or internet freedom.
Congress must revisit the Safe Harbor statutes so that active intermediaries are held legally responsible for the content on their sites. Google and Facebook will put up a mighty fight over this, using the same phony free speech arguments they used to fight Article 13 in Europe. But there is no other way to create a healthier, more inclusive internet.
In the meantime, because it may take a while to get this law passed, here’s one thing Facebook and YouTube could do that wouldn’t fully address these problems but would help: voluntarily institute a minimum of a one-minute delay between the time that a video is uploaded to their platform and the time it goes live. This would allow the increasingly sophisticated AI content moderation systems to examine each video for potential harm and root out deep fakes.
Google has shown it can easily block unlicensed music when it wants to — it already pre-emptively blocks all sorts of content it deems incompatible with its YouTube brand, including pornography and ISIS recruitment, and sex trafficking ads (which they are required to do thanks to recent amendments to the Safe Harbors in Congress).
But that can-do attitude doesn’t extend to all regions of YouTube. Artist rights activist and musician David Lowery has meticulously mapped it, finding videos advertising illegal Fentanyl sales, an ad for Russian mail-order brides appearing alongside an Aimee Mann video and other horrors.
What turns YouTube from “can-do” to “can’t stop, won’t stop”? Money. The company actively resists calls to police its network in ways that might lessen page views and ad dollars, such as proactively taking down unlicensed movies and video or limiting access to illegal pharmacies. But if sanitizing history and blocking speech and information for Chinese dissidents is a prerequisite to doing business in the world’s second-biggest economy, Google will find a way to scrub out references to the Dalai Lama or the Goddess of Democracy.
Protecting free expression and other fundamental rights are the cornerstone of free societies. Debates about whether government actions would further or curtail those rights should be welcomed. But Google’s participation in those debates no longer should be taken seriously given its situational ethics and highly flexible commitment to democratic values when it comes to doing business in China.