Tech Executive Ponders Power Over Speech

A tech giant’s CEO this week expressed second thoughts about his actions to help mute a neo-Nazi group in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Like Google, GoDaddy, and Twitter, Cloudflare, a major defender of websites against cyberattacks, abruptly terminated its services for the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist site with reprehensible content. While recognizing the site’s vile nature, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince worried about the precedent such action could set.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Prince acknowledged that shutting down Nazis feels easy and wins applause for being a stand against hate. However, he was concerned about the power conveyed to internet titans. He said there are now a few “gatekeepers to the public square—the blogs and social media that serve as today’s soapboxes and pamphlets.”  Prince added, “If a handful of tech executives decide to block you from their services, your content effectively can’t be on the internet.”

There has been an escalating debate over the role of online giants in policing or allowing speech, a subject NRB has highlighted for some time, particularly through its John Milton Project. In recent weeks, a chorus has been growing for closer scrutiny of the power of these corporations, and some have even called for them to be treated as public utilities. Prince invoked similar imagery as he expressed uneasiness about “invisible but ubiquitous” companies deciding what content can be online. He said, “The pre-internet analogy would be if Ma Bell listened in on phone calls and could terminate your line if it didn’t like what you were talking about.”

Notably, many edge providers have been rallying for such heavy-handed Title II common carrier authority over internet service providers (ISPs) in the “net neutrality” battle. In another interesting article titled “The Bipartisan Silicon Valley Squeeze,” Bret Swanson of the American Enterprise Institute highlighted the irony of the edge providers’ Title II argument that ISPs could use monopolistic power to undermine disfavored content or speech. Swanson said, “In hindsight, it looks like a classic case of projection.”

Swanson also warned, “If Silicon Valley wants to do politics, politicians will be more than happy to do tech. This is not an outcome many conservatives and libertarians relish, but neither is unilateral disarmament.”

In a recent FCC filing, Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, emphasized caution about new regulatory regimes and highlighted the value of free enterprise. However, he also reminded the agency of NRB’s suggestion from a 2014 comment: “Any regulation of broadband providers requires a broad picture that includes an evaluation of the policies and practices of edge providers in order to protect the free speech interests of citizen users.” Johnson indicated that incidents of censorship of religious and ideologically conservative viewpoints by some major edge providers remain a problem.

This is undoubtedly a conversation that will continue. For his part, Cloudflare’s Prince spoke warily in his editorial about rulings made “capriciously by mobs and tyrants.” He concluded, “My moral compass alone should not determine who gets to stay online.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: August 25, 2017

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