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Friday, August 18, 2017

Silicon valley's declaration of war

Big Internet companies have decided to fight fascism with more fascism.

B elieve it or not, I try to avoid politics. I often say politics comes from the Greek poli meaning ‘city’ and tics meaning ‘bloodsucking insect.’ But politics is a rich source of bad ideas to criticize. Every time I try to focus on science and philosophy, another one pops up to drag me back into the muck.

The latest one is a doozy. The Internet's neutrality is under attack by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who have announced that they will stop anyone who believes in an unapproved idea from raising money online, registering their domains, posting their thoughts, or booking hotel rooms. The only way to do this is by blacklisting. If they succeed, the Internet will be politicized forever.

Google and Facebook, it is true, have a long tradition of graylisting and downranking ideas with with they disagree. But now, Google, Facebook, Paypal, Gofundme, Twitter, Spotify, Apple, Cloudfare, and Discover credit card are no longer just planning to just fire employees and block customers. They plan to actively discriminate on the basis of political beliefs. Executive summary Big corporations appear to be using Charlottes­ville as a pretext for driving their political opponents off the Internet. Doing so invites government intervention and would be devastating to their reputation for fairness.

Cloudfare is a company that provides protection against DoS (denial of service) attacks. These attacks are often political. Now Cloudfare has decided to deny protection to groups whose political beliefs they dislike. So far only one site, a self-professed neo-Nazi site, is affected. But neo-Nazis may be just the canary in the coal mine. The history of these companies shows that the blacklisting will not stop with Nazis.

Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudfare, recognized that what he was doing was destructive:

I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the internet. . . . It was a decision I could make because I'm the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

He is right. This jeopardizes the stability and neutrality of the entire Internet. It puts our ability to criticize bad ideas and propose solutions to social problems in danger.

Now, here's where I'm supposed to boo and hiss at the bad guys in Charlottesville. Okay, Nazism and fascism are evil. But the defining characteristic of fascism is not carrying a red and black flag or admiring a statue of some historical figure or saying you don't like certain people. Fascism is the repression of unwanted ideas by those in power. You cannot fight hate with more hate, and you cannot fight fascism with more fascism, without creating more of it.

It is not true, as conservatives often claim, that these are private companies and so they can do as they please. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination by public accommodation, defined in Title II as any hotel, restaurant, theater, or anyone engaged in interstate commerce, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since then, the list of protected groups has expanded to include women and gay people. In short, companies are not allowed to fire people or deny service just because they are a particular race or religion—they have to invent some phony excuse first.

This was a regrettable intrusion of government into the private sector, but it happened because companies were doing it and thereby committing injustice. Now they're at it again.

Maybe Congress should extend this law to protect political, philosophical, and intellectual beliefs. It is these, not hate and prejudice—which will always be with us—that are threatened by Silicon Valley's grab for power.

Conservatives also like to say: if you don't like Google, then start your own search engine and put them out of business. Sure, just grab a few billion investor dollars, find a way around Google's patents, and build a new search engine. In twenty years, if your Board doesn't throw you out, you might even catch up. Remember Yahoo search? How many people use Conservapedia? How many people have even heard of Infogalactic? Conservatives should try that argument when liberals complain about Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950s.

If I write about some scientific research showing that male and female brains are different, or if I criticize some aspect of the theory of global warming, or if I suggest that some fashionable activity may be harmful, will I be knocked off the Internet? If this site disappears in a month or so, you will know the answer.

They can't defund me, because I was clever enough to make sure I don't make one red cent on this website. And even if Google delists me, it won't have much effect because I've already offended at one time or another almost every single person, liberal or conservative, who ever visited this website. Those few I haven't offended have been put off by my terrible writing style and my refusal to proofread.

But other sites aren't that clever. The First Amendment is not strong enough. People with the power to repress ideas are finding ways around it. Once it starts, neither liberals, conservatives, nor libertarians will be immune.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook wrote in his statement:

Debate is part of a healthy society. But when someone tries to silence others or attacks them based on who they are or what they believe, that hurts us all and is unacceptable.

The irony is strong with this one.

Even the UK Daily Mail, not often noted for its familiarity with the nuances of American law, pointed out that when these corporations begin to police debate, they take responsibility for moderating all their content, and they can and will be held liable for it. This means that Google searches and Facebook postings will have to be completely sanitized to remove anything potentially offensive to anyone, lest the company be sued.

This will not deepen or enhance the quality of public debate. It will lower it to the level of stories about rainbows and unicorns for small children.

Whatever you believe about the vicious political theater in Charlottesville, this is wrong. It is not about racism or hate. It is about big corporations using their power to prevent people from hearing alternative opinions. Charlottesville is merely a pretext for what these companies have wanted to do for a long time.

If the government tolerates this encroachment on their power, America will split into two mutually antagonistic groups, with no possibility of communication between them. It plays into the hands of the haters, and there will be no way for anyone to remain neutral. And things will go downhill from there.

Update: Gavin McInnes has a great informative commentary on Charlottesville and a spirited defense of Trump's statements on the matter.

Update (aug 19, 2017): It turns out that the Charlottesville riot may have been a setup designed as a political morality play that got out of hand. There's evidence the police were ordered to drive the two groups together and then stand down. Another author, Michael Thau, in a nicely written article, writes

When moderate and reasonable advocacy gets shouted down and falsely branded as hateful, all that's left is the sort of outlandish but nonviolent ideas of Richard Spencer and the much more outlandish and violent ones of Nazi cosplayers.

Historical statues are now being destroyed all over the country and alt-right websites are rapidly disappearing from the Internet. I was studying some of these sites trying to understand how fringe movements get started and how they evolve, and maybe argue against it. Now that's impossible. Silicon Valley isn't interested in knowledge, only in telling us what to think.

Let me end with a quote that summarizes what is going on.

Education, you know, means broadening, advancing, and if you limit a teacher to only one side of anything the whole country will eventually have only one thought, be one individual. I believe in teaching every aspect of every problem or theory. —John T. Scopes, 1925, before the Scopes Monkey Trial

Fascists can't tolerate that. They can't stand the competition.

aug 18, 2017; last edited aug 20, 2017, 11:13 am

See also

Witch-hunt hysteria at Google
James Damore at Google discovered an uncomfortable fact about human nature

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