Social media platforms and Big Tech companies have been slowly working to censor content on their platforms more efficiently.
Emma Llanso, Director of Free Expression at the Center for Democracy and Technology, wrote in an op-ed for Wired that the response to the New Zealand mass shooting in March brought the internet to a terrifying reality. Tech companies have only emphasized more “increasingly centralized and opaque censorship of the global internet.”
Llanso pointed out that Facebook’s announcement detailing plans of countering terrorism is already taking steps towards automatic censorship. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, composed of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, was launched in 2017 to help sites regulate themselves and remove content that could potentially be illegal. However, the forum has “a shared database of hashes of files identified by the participating companies to be “extreme and egregious” terrorist content.”
Facebook wrote in a blog post on March 18 that it was adding more content to this database. The company stressed “industry cooperation” and wrote that it helpfully “identified abusive content” on other sites.
But Facebook was not alone: Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote that he was interested in building a “safe search engine” that “blocked the accessing of such content at the point when people attempt to view and download it.” Smith emphasized “healthier online environments,” and said that “it doesn’t help when online interaction normalizes in cyberspace standards of behavior that almost all of us would consider unacceptable in the real world.”
Llanso wrote that the hash database suffered from a complete lack of transparency and accountability. “No one outside of the consortium of companies knows what is in the database,” she said. “People whose posts are removed or accounts disabled on participating sites aren’t even notified if the hash database was involved.”
The bleak reality of just how much power these companies have is manifested in the fact that internet service providers in Australia actually blocked websites from users until the websites had removed offending content. In New Zealand, posting blocked content could lead to jail time.
Government censorship plays into this as well. The U.K.’s new proposals for a “regulatory regime” would most likely rely on automatic censorship and blacklist databases in order to satisfy its standards. Countries such as China and Russia already heavily regulate and block automatically online, with no free speech safeguards.