The past week has been a tough one for lovers of freedom. Slippery slopes have been slid down and a side of the human mind that once remained in shadow has reared its head. Charlottesville is just the first step down a dark road.
In real life, on the public square, our support of freedom of speech and public assembly – a freedom that has long helped hater and lover alike – is in question. Do we open our squares to men who will fight equality? Do we unlock our school grounds so that fear can reign? Do we simply close our windows on loudspeakers calling out for genocide or do we act? I don’t have an answer, but sunlight has always been the best antiseptic and seeing most of these groups on a bare parade ground lays bare their insignificance.
But what do you about the Internet where everything is shadow hiding inside corporate iron? The Internet is a utility, to a degree, but not one whose sanctity is guaranteed to us by some holy writ. We send bits over corporate networks onto servers housed in corporate basements. We shout into corporate megaphones and write screeds – like this one – into corporate editor windows.
On that skein of wires there is no sunlight. We, the creators of that world, must decide. Do we let hate live alongside love? What is conversation when everyone yells? What is fair when everyone has the loudest voice?
I was once a free-love kind of Internet zealot. I still agree that DRM is wrong, that media wants to be free and that good media will be paid for by someone. I still agree that sex is far less egregious than violence and that visions of both help define the lines of our personalities and ensure we do not wander too far into some puritan desert. I was angry, for example, when Pinterest pulled sexual content but know I know things have changed. Pinterest runs is own servers. It is responsible for the contents. It deserves final say.
And that’s where we are now. If you hate, says Wired in a recent profile of Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, you will be shut down.
“Instagram is supposed to be a place for self-expression and joy,” wrote Nicholas Thompson in the profile. “Who wants to express themselves, though, if they’re going to be mocked, harassed, and shamed in the comments below a post? Instagram is a bit like Disneyland—if every now and then the seven dwarfs hollered at Snow White for looking fat.”
Or who wants to star in a Ghostbusters reboot and be called racial slurs? And who wants to live in a world where /r/aww lives next to /r/poli?
We, the curators of the Internet, have to decide. Some of us already have. We see Cloudflare and GoDaddy pulling their services from white power site Daily Stormer. Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince agonized over the decision. He, like most Internet users, expects the web to be free as in freedom.
“Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare,” he wrote. “You, like me, may believe that the Daily Stormer’s site is vile. You may believe it should be restricted. You may think the authors of the site should be prosecuted. Reasonable people can and do believe all those things. But having the mechanism of content control be vigilante hackers launching DDoS attacks subverts any rational concept of justice.”
In the end this is where we must go. It’s folks like Rabbi Abe Cooper as well as Valley CEOs who will help us find a way forward. Freedom of speech in the public square is one right we all have. But there is no free speech in the walled garden if the gardener doesn’t will it.
Listen to Nina Simone. She sang an old spiritual and sang it beautifully.
“Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to? Where you gonna run to? All on that day,” she said. “We got to run to the rock. Please hide me, I run to the rock. All on that day. But the rock cried out. I can’t hide you, the rock cried out. I ain’t gonna hide you there.”
Haters are hiding. They run to the rock. The rock is cries out. It won’t hide them. They must stand, then, and face those they wronged. This is the way it has always been and always will be. We can’t let the Internet change that.