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What the power to block means for freedom of speech

August 24, 2017 | By Jason Kint, CEO—DCN @jason_kint

Our President relentlessly attacked the press for 30 minutes on Tuesday evening.

Make no mistake, Trump’s words and blatant disregard for the free media sends chilling signals and has a ripple effect with real consequences for reporters around the globe. He has that power. On the other hand, MSNBC exercised its right to effectively block Trump’s attempt to rewrite Charlottesville history by switching over to its studio for context and commentary about half an hour into his remarks.

It should be noted that you—the audience—have the right to turn off MSNBC if you don’t approve of its broadcast. This is how a free media works. Much the same, you can choose to read Trump’s tweets, ignore them, or block his tweets if you don’t want to see them at all. This is how open technology works. You have that power.

But in Silicon Valley, where technology companies pretend to stay “neutral” to avoid these messy issues, things are only getting more complicated. The platforms continue to assert that they are not media companies, or at least not “traditional” media . And this distinction is important because, as Josh Constine pointed out, pure technology platforms receive greater immunity regarding the content they serve, both legally and in the public eye. Media companies are considered more directly responsible for their content although ironically the platforms often get undue credit for delivering it.

Yet—in part because of moral outrage, and pressure from media watchdogs and international governments—tech platforms do step up willy-nilly to exert their control over content. Well-intentioned or not, the loose rules and vague promises of technology companies threaten to block the important role of the free media and the ability of the public to stay informed.

Closed for Good

While our President was struggling to adjust his messaging to speak out against neo-Nazis and white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, these abhorrent humans had their favorite website, Daily Stormer, effectively shut down.

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

These are the words of the CEO of network security company CloudFare, who decided early last week to remove its protection and stop defending an indefensible website as a client. This followed after two other companies, GoDaddy and Google, refused to provide DNS services for Daily Stormer. These technology companies have the ability to silence this viewpoint. And they did.

However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called these moves “dangerous.” I agree. Take a look at EFF’s Free Speech weak links and you’ve got a jackpot situation of intermediary technology companies, and their CEOs, that possess the ability to shut down a site. No one should have that power.

Make no mistake, I’m as pleased as anyone that the website Daily Stormer was reduced to zero audience. I do not have an ounce of worry for their fate and I do hope the site sinks to the bottom of the garbage heap that is the dead web. But there is an underlying concern that has been exposed here.

“One of the problems with defending free speech,” the celebrated author Salman Rushdie said, “is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”

Right. And thank you to Margaret Sullivan for putting this statement front and center as she weighed in on Charlottesville this week.

As the EFF wrote: “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”

Simply put, no intermediary should be able to single-handedly shut down a website. Unfortunately, our beloved open web appears to be broken. And because of flaws in its own brilliant design, they can.

Neutral or Not

The FCC is in the final step of throwing out the Open Internet Order, which will effectively gut Net Neutrality. Make no mistake, this will allow a broadband provider to block content it doesn’t like. Broadband providers have promised they would never do this, and I trust that most, when left to their own judgment, will not. But we need only to look towards the Middle East and China for the reasons we must not sit idle and blindly trust such promises. No one should have that power.

Much the same, it is impossible to run a successful web media business without being discoverable on Google Search. Any publisher who turns down Google’s business rules for search is effectively off the grid – much the same as the Daily Stormer. No one should have that power.

Ultimately, we need a modern framework for when it’s acceptable for an intermediary to shut down a website or silence a voice. Search and social platforms are inexorably intertwined in our web experiences. So, they must—like the media companies with whom they so greatly rely upon—fully grasp and support freedom of speech and the open web.

Power and Social Responsibility

In fact, we need a new framework for public officials on Twitter. Right now, we have a situation where White House spokespeople, from the controversial advisor Sebastian Gorka to the President himself, block individual Twitter users. This is simply not the same as an individual blocking a troll. This is a case of public officials silencing an emerging channel for the public discourse that is a pillar of our system.

But beyond blocking individuals, politicians are also blocking reporters on Twitter. This shouldn’t be seen differently than a reporter blocked from a White House press briefing. Twitter is part of the modern media ecosystem and in fact has been declared official statements of the White House. And all media has a responsibility to share the statements of political officials with the public. Yet somehow, we find ourselves in a place where the single American who wields the most power is now able to block the public from reading and engaging through our modern media. No one should have that power.

Even if you accept the idea that public officials should have the right to block accounts on Twitter (which I don’t) then there at least needs to be public disclosure of the accounts they’ve blocked. It is significant that any blocked users are permanently unable to read the official statements for these officials. No one should have that power.

The Internet has created a global forum for communication, expression, and the dissemination of information. It has triggered the emergence of exciting—and dispiriting, even dangerous—technologies. It has transformed the very definition of media. Yet none of these developments has diminished the importance of the First Amendment. Technology evolves. The medium for media evolves. But our commitment to our fundamental American values must remain steadfast. This is far from the last time we will be called upon to consider these values in a new context. Let us do so in a way that supports progress along with public discourse and an open Internet. Therein lies the real power.

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