Youtube Censorship Shows Big Tech Coming For Our Freedom
For much of the 20th century, the political right was preoccupied with the threat the state posed to free societies. In its most frightening incarnation, the great state was represented by totalitarian entities like the USSR.
Yet classical liberal thought, which would dominate right-wing political parties in the West during the 1980s, saw a common thread running straight from social democratic assistance to the gulag – a “path to serfdom”, as the title goes. of the famous defense of Friedrich Hayek. laissez-faire capitalism formulated it.
Hayek’s traumatic experience of Austrian descent living on the outskirts of a collapsing Weimar Germany fueled his conviction that social democracy – as opposed to decrepit capitalism – generated the rise of ‘Hitler and the Nazis. It laid the foundation for fascism, argued Hayek, by undermining people’s attachment to individual freedom.
While Hayek’s view of social democracy was exaggerated – post-WWII Europe enjoyed a period of remarkable freedom and prosperity in mixed economies with interventionist states – he was surely right to argue that state collectivism at least contained the seeds of despotism. As George Orwell wrote in 1944 in his review of Hayek’s book The road of serfdom (and as millions behind the Iron Curtain were discovering for themselves), the technocratic state “gives a tyrannical minority powers that the Spanish inquisitors never dreamed of.”
And yet, an obsession with the overpowered state – part of our twentieth-century Hayekian heritage – can also blind us to threats to freedom posed by private enterprises. Indeed, the most serious threat to freedom in the West – at least for now – arguably comes not from state-backed totalitarianism, but from private Big Tech companies.
The revenues of the six big tech companies – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Netflix – individually exceed those of many nation states. In 2019, Alphabet, the holding company that owns Google and its YouTube video platform, achieved a turnover of 162 billion dollars, more than the entire Hungarian economy.
We increasingly rely on Big Tech algorithms to facilitate everything from our connections to each other through social media, to the people we date, to the information we consume. And platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (also owned by Facebook) and YouTube (owned by Google) have the power to censor us if they choose. The fact that they don’t (usually) is surely irrelevant. The point is, most of us probably couldn’t do much if we were suddenly kicked from their platforms.
Last week we were reminded of how helpless we are when Novara Media, a left-wing broadcaster with 170,000 subscribers, saw its YouTube channel suddenly deleted. In an email to Novara, YouTube reportedly said the broadcaster was guilty of “repeated violations” of YouTube community guidelines. According to the company, a YouTube channel is “terminated” if it accumulates three “strikes” while flouting the platform’s “community guidelines”.
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Something similar recently happened to a friend of mine. Filmmaker and former BBC and Channel 4 journalist David Fuller called YouTube “unsuitable for hosting journalism” after the platform arbitrarily removed two videos from its Rebel Wisdom channel – films that featured criticism of anti-vaccination arguments – on the based that they constituted “medical disinformation”. Fuller’s channel also received a “strike” on YouTube.
In both cases, YouTube then reversed its rulings and released statements that the videos had been wrongly removed. It turned out that YouTube’s error-prone algorithm was to blame. YouTube, the world’s largest video platform, drops roughly 2,000 channels every hour – so much in fact that human employees outsource at least some of the platform’s moderation to algorithms. Yet many of the rules governing what is removed by YouTube – or “demonetized,” a step sometimes taken to prevent content creators from generating ad revenue – remain opaque to people outside the company.
Right-wing content creators have often been the targets of Big Tech censorship. And so, until YouTube came in for the left-wing Novara channel, many progressives were blatantly silent about Big Tech censorship – or worse, they thoughtlessly cheered for the removal of content by the tech giants. . Their reasoning for doing so often sounded more libertarian than leftist. As Novara Media’s own video editor, Gary McQuiggin Put the In 2020, when US President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, “It’s not censorship when a private company decides to take you off their platform.”
Part of this liberal complacency arguably stems from the assumption that modern businesses share their socially liberal attitudes. Indeed, in recent times, the rise of “awakened capitalism” has seen companies turn virtue into profit. Big Tech has become adept at speaking the language of “equality” and “diversity” – while simultaneously pursuing its own profit-driven agenda. Amazon, the world’s largest multinational – where I discovered workers urinating in Coca-Cola bottles when I infiltrated the company in 2016 – even quotes “fairness” as the one of its guiding principles.
The totalitarianism of the great states may have been the curse of the 20th century. Yet, as philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, an obsession with totalitarianism can lead us to “become blind to the many evils, small and less small, with which the road to hell is paved.”
Our apparent willingness to let Big Tech dictate the information we consume is a relevant example of the “blindness” Arendt was referring to. When big tech companies wield greater power than many modern nations, the great state is probably not the only bogeyman we should be worried about.
“That’s what we believe,” Margaret Thatcher reportedly told colleagues in the Conservative Party, holding up a copy of Hayek’s The constitution of liberty. In our complacency towards private companies, we still live in Hayek’s shadow. But as Orwell noted in his review of Hayek The road of serfdom, Hayek was blind to the fact that “free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly”.
Monopoly is precisely what Big Tech has granted us when it comes to our online lives. As such, the issue of Big Tech censorship can no longer be dismissed as a private company acting for its own private interests. Indeed, it is high time to get rid of the outdated dogma that says that only the state is able to thwart political freedom.
[See also: The goodness business: how woke capitalism turned virtue into profit]