Tech giants – gatekeepers or censors?

 

Sir, – Dr David Thunder questions “whether a handful of private corporations should be in a position to monitor and control the flow of information on what is now a large part of the infrastructure of the global public sphere” (“YouTube row raises serious questions on censorship by tech giants”, Opinion & Analysis, July 22nd).

To be fair to the tech giants, their very popularity and ubiquity have also made them victims of their own success. If they argue that they are platforms and not publishers, as they do, they lay themselves open to be accused of hosting a wide variety of reprehensible content, but of playing no role in policing it. If, on the other hand, they do exercise some type of role in restricting the nature of what can be hosted, they are criticised for alleged abuse of their power. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Dr Thunder does not deny that, given their success, some level of control is necessary, “given the level of barbarity to which some social media users can sink”. But he also argues that many forms of offensive speech are not black and white, citing such issues as gender, religion, national identity, where “deeply unpopular and offensive” views may be put forward, with no intention to incite hatred or violence.

I have two difficulties with what may appear to be otherwise reasonable points. First, the difficulties in certain cases in deciding what is hate-speech and what is not cannot mean that those other cases which are blatantly and egregiously based on the singling out of entire groups of people as targets of hateful propaganda cannot be subjected to restrictions, including the suspension of the accounts of repeat offenders. Second, I find it quite impossible to accept that an informed commentator on Irish social affairs was not aware of the nefarious nature of the material which he was discussing here. The words “if, as Google alleges”, do not excuse a writer from a disingenuous disavowal of any knowledge of their content.

Hate-speech is not a victim-free crime. It is divisive and dangerous and may serve as a pathway to the normalisation of attitudes which sooner or later can be used to justify acts of violence and exclusion. There can be no absolute right to “freedom of speech” if that means entire communities or categories of people can be made the subject of false and damaging misrepresentations. Yet all of this has been happening in recent months.

We do need an open debate in the political sphere, of a kind which can lead to more effective stewardship, for the public good, of these online forums. But in the meantime, some action is necessary to prevent the proliferation of hate.

I write this on the eighth anniversary of the killing of 77 innocent young Norwegians by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik. He began his career with online hate posts. We cannot be complacent. – Yours, etc,

PIARAS

MAC ÉINRÍ,

Lecturer in Migration

Studies,

Department of Geography,

University College Cork.

Sir, – Everyone is free to set up their own website and put out whatever content they wish. It can have the same worldwide reach as any other website.

What no one is entitled to is apparent brand endorsement by Google, YouTube or any other host.

The Irish Times does not provide unfettered access by contributors yet we do not call it censorship or lack of free speech.

This letter will be subjected to editorial control and I take my chances on it being published. I am not entitled to a “platform”, regardless of how important I think my message is. I may still print my letter and distribute it on the streets. I have that freedom to say anything.

Among the consequences I may face are legal, but why should someone else be burdened involuntarily with that responsibility? – Yours, etc,

BILL EBRILL,

Dalkey,

Co Dublin.