Shopify, Breitbart, and Freedom of Speech.

Tonight I came across an article on TechCrunch in response to an open letter from Tobias Lütke, CEO of e-commerce platform Shopify, in which he defends the company’s decision to continue hosting Breitbart’s online shop. Breitbart being the infamous far right publication of which Steve Bannon was heavily involved with.

After sustained criticism, Lütke explains in the post entitled ‘In Support of Free Speech’ that based upon a belief that ‘commerce is a powerful, underestimated form of expression’, it would be wrong to effectively censor merchants by shutting down their shops as the result of differing political views.

Reporting on the letter, TechCrunch shared their post to Facebook with the text: ‘Shopify’s CEO thinks his platform has a responsibility to continue hosting Breitbart’s store – here’s why he’s wrong.’

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I was curious to see the arguments that would be proffered as to why the decision was wrong, but was ultimately left wanting. Here are the reasons given, as far as I could make out:

  1. Lütke is grossly overestimating the role of a private e-commerce platform in providing and protecting freedom of expression.
  2. Shopify cannot ‘censor’ anybody, as they are not an emanation of the State.
  3. Justifying the continued hosting of merchants who have extreme views for freedom of speech reasons is wrong, as freedom of speech does not apply to private organisations.
  4. As a private company, Shopify are not legally required to provide a platform to anybody.
  5. Shopify’s Terms of Service allow them to terminate the account of any user at any time.

In response, here’s why TechCrunch are wrong:

None of the reasons given actually explain why Shopify shouldn’t continue to host Breitbart.

Read over them again, then check out the full article here. Despite heavily criticising Shopify, and stating that Lütke is ‘wrong’, TechCrunch don’t engage at all with the heart of the issue. No, Shopify are not legally required to host the Breitbart shop, and yes, quite obviously their Terms of Service are quite obviously worded in such a way to give them that discretion in the event of any legal challenge, but that’s hardly a surprise.

Here’s the big question that went unanswered: why should Shopify not host Breitbart?Lütke hits the nail on the head with the following challenge, which the TechCrunch article completely fails to even acknowledge:

When we kick off a merchant, we’re asserting our own moral code as the superior one. But who gets to define that moral code? Where would it begin and end? Who gets to decide what can be sold and what can’t?

Rather than attempt to address this fundamental issue, TechCrunch essentially just argue that Shopify should kick Breitbart off of their platform because, er, well, legally there’s nothing to stop them. A pretty poor argument at best.

Protecting freedom of speech isn’t just down to the State.

Firstly, I’m not sure where this idea that censorship is only something that the State can give effect to comes from. It means to forbid or to ban something; to suppress speech. The source doesn’t have anything to do with it.

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Secondly, there is a lot of confusion surrounding freedom of speech and the relation to the State, even from those who purport to understand the dynamic. To clear some things up, the following are true:

  • Freedom of speech law (generally) only protects citizens from the acts of State actors.
  • Private online service providers (generally) have no obligation to protect the freedom of speech rights of their users, or to give them a platform for expression.

However, to assert that a platform cannot justify their actions based on freedom of speech considerations, or to willingly strive to uphold those principles on the basis of the above is a non sequitur. Additionally, just because you can’t threaten legal action on a freeedom of speech argument against Facebook if they take down your status update, that doesn’t mean it is wrong to argue that Facebook should be doing more to consider and protect those values.

Just as we would not expect a hotel owner to be able to refuse to allow a same sex couple to share a bed, or a pub to knock back someone based purely on the colour of their skin, it is nonsense to pretend that we have no expectations of private organisations to abide by certain shared societal values.

Without touching on the claims around the importance of e-commerce as a vehicle for expression, it seems that in a world where we are increasingly reliant on private entities to provide our virtual town square equivalents, and where we expect certain values to be upheld, arguably platforms such as Shopify have an increasing moral obligation to protect (as far as is possible) the principles that are the cornerstone of our Democracies.

 

 

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Censoring ‘Fake News’ is the real threat to our online freedom

As the results of the US Presidential election began to sink in, the finger of blame swung around to focus on ‘fake news’ websites, that publish factually incorrect articles with snappy headlines that are ripe for social media dissemination.

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A ‘fake’ headline. Via the Independent.

Ironically, the age of propaganda has previously thought to have died out with the proliferation of easy access to the Internet, with people able to cross-reference and fact check claims from their bedroom, rather than having a single domestic point of information. Instead, what it appears we are seeing is the opposite; people congregating around a single funnel of sources (Facebook), which filters to the top the most widely shared (read: most attention grabbing) articles.

Almost immediately, the socially liberal-leaning technology giants Google and Facebook announced that they would be taking steps to prevent websites from making use of their services. This has sparked a ream of discussion about the ‘responsibility’ of other online platforms to take steps to prevent the spread of these so-called ‘fake news’ sites on their networks.

Here, probably for the first time I can remember, I find myself in agreement with what Zuckerberg has (reportedly) said in response:

The suggestion that online platforms should unilaterally act to restrict ‘fake news’ websites is one of the biggest threats to free speech to face the Internet.

Those are my words, not his – just to be clear. Click through to see what he actually said (well, as long as the source can be trusted).

It is unclear exactly what ‘fake news’ is supposed to be. Some sites ‘outing’ publishers that engage in this sort of activity have included The Onion in their lists, which in of itself demonstrates the problem of singling out websites that publish ‘fake’ news.

  • Where is the line drawn between ‘fake news’ and satire?
  • At what point do factually incorrect articles become ‘fake news’?
  • At what point do ‘trade puffs’ and campaign claims become ‘fake news’ rather than just passionate advocacy?
  • If the defining factor is intent, rather than content, who makes that determination, and based on what set of values?

It is not the job of online platforms to make determinations on the truth of the articles that their users either share, or the content that they themselves publish. There is no moral obligation or imperative on them to editorialise and ensure that only particular messages reach their networks. In fact, it is arguably the complete opposite: they have an ethical obligation to ensure that they do not interfere in the free speech of users, and free dissemination of ideas and information; irrespective of their own views on the ‘truth’ or otherwise of them.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Misinformation is a real issue, and the lazy reliance culture facilitated by networks such as Facebook and Google where any article with a catchy headline is taken at face value is a huge problem, but the answer is not for these networks to take things into their own hands and decide what set of truths are acceptable for us to see, and which are not.

We have reached a position where half of our societies are voting one way, whilst the other half can’t believe that anybody would ever make such a decision, precisely because we have retreated into our own echo chambers – both in the physical world as well as the virtual. The solution to the political struggles we on the left face is not to further restrict the gamut of speech that is open to us in our shared online spaces, or to expect service providers to step up and act as over-arching publishers; it is to get out there and effectively challenge those ideas with people that we would normally avoid engaging with. Curtailing the free speech of others through the arbitrary definition of ‘fake news’ is not only not the answer, but it’s a terrifying prospect to the very freedoms that we are arguing to protect.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that these are my views, and not necessarily those of WordPress.com, or anybody else.

Twitter and S.112 of the Equality Act 2010

Yesterday it was posted in the Drum that after receiving a number of threats including rape over Twitter, that the subject of these messages – Caroline Criado-Perez – has been approached by a lawyer with respect to a possible civil law action against the service. Under Section 112 of the Equality Act 2010, no person must ‘knowingly help’ another to do anything which contravenes the conditions laid out in the Act. Without commenting directly on the facts or merits of this case, if Twitter are to be held liable for the actions of its users in such a manner, the ramifications would extend far beyond the issues at hand.

There are few that would argue that the social network knowingly and willingly designed their systems specifically to allow people to abuse others – it wouldn’t make good business sense for a start. Users don’t tend to stick around on services where they can’t filter out those that they don’t want to interact with, which is exactly why there is a ‘block’ function in place. Whether it is practical to be able to block thousands of different sources quickly and effectively is quite a different question, and one which is not new to the web – as any webmaster worth their salt will know. Block an offending IP address, and just as quickly another one will pop up: the ol’ virtual whack-a-mole.

Twitter may have ‘knowingly’ created a system where people are free to disseminate information en masse, quickly, and with any content as they so desire, but to hold them to account for ‘knowingly helping’ people to breach Equality legislation seems farcical (not to mention out-with its intended purpose). If providers are to be held responsible for that posted by its users to such an extent, then we may as well proceed to shutdown all similar platforms, as any that allow people a level of freedom of expression, as they will always be mis-used. To apply the law in this way would have a chilling effect not just on the development of the web, but on free speech itself.