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“What is the right balance between sexual freedom and the protection of children?” asks Jillian York in the concluding chapter of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism. In a society that views sexual expression and childrens’ use of the Internet as antithetical, even asking this question invites suspicion.
But York’s questions are reasonable and they demand answers. Silicon Values is a trenchant critique of how platform censorship is enabled by surveillance capitalism—the online business model built on the commodification of personal data for profit. In her investigation of this topic, York refuses to look away from difficult edge cases, where platform policies have disproportionate impacts on the human rights of marginalized groups.
A defining contribution of the book is York’s searing analysis of how processes for the removal of abusive content at scale disproportionately affect “women, queer and trans people, and sex workers.”As she points out, this “War on Sex” predates SESTA/FOSTA and is “the result of both well-meaning-but-misguided anti-sex trafficking activism and the conservative predilections of payment processors, corporate executives, and politicians.”
York traces the origins of this moral panic to an early false study about the prevalence of pornography on the Internet, which in turn led to the passage of a landmark law on Internet platform liability. She documents how major Internet platforms have since ratcheted up their limitations on sexual content in response to this rising political tide of sex-negativity, pointing to examples such as Facebook’s ban on breastfeeding photos (which led to protests in 2009 and an eventual partial relaxation of the policy), and Tumblr’s banning of all sexual imagery following the passage of FOSTA in 2018. York writes:
At a time when attitudes towards sex work, transgender individuals, and other sexual minorities are by and large changing for the better, it is perhaps ironic that Silicon Valley’s CEOs are so rapidly closing off the spaces where such communities have long gathered.
Among many examples of these policies misfiring on the most marginalized, she recounts how a Google algorithm designed to downrank and filter “toxic” comments rated the speech of drag queens as toxic, because of their use of slang terms and reclaimed slurs that were once used against their own community. “As it turns out,” York writes, “the best way to get rid of undesirable content is to cast a wide net… no matter if a few dolphins get caught up in it.”
She also points out that these broad content restriction policies of Internet platforms haven’t been of entirely endogenous origin; rather, she characterizes platforms as “watching, and waiting, for the public sentiment around any given controversy to gain enough momentum that they had to respond accordingly.” This explains (to use an example not given by York) Twitter’s actions against the anti-abuse MAP community, in which an initially science-led approach was undermined by growing public sentiment against that community.
Another factor driving the increasingly precarious state of sexual content online has been the growing power of “backdoor collaborations between governments and platforms.” Evelyn Douek has described these arrangements as content cartels, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which employs York, and formerly this reviewer) has described them as shadow regulation. York is unsparing in her criticism of major platforms for this complicity, writing that:
As Zuckerberg et al. have lined their pockets with income generated from the advertisers preying on the world’s citizens, they have increasingly cozied up to power, with apparently little concern for how that power is derived.
However unlike some cyber-libertarians, York does not promote a laissez-faire approach to the protection of children online. “I am an advocate for free expression not because I believe that all speech is equally important, or that all speech is good,” she writes, “but because I believe that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which makes it nary impossible to trust an authority to censor effectively.”
She acknowledges that the criminalization of child sexual abuse material is a measure that “all but the most depraved individual might agree with; it is also—despite that consensus—censorship” (a point that Prostasia Foundation has also made). She also asserts, probably correctly, that despite the sexual speech of marginalized groups being over-censored, “When it comes to child sexual abuse imagery, society is largely comfortable with the potential of over-moderation.”
These impacts on minority groups are inevitable, argues York, when “the most marginalized members of society are rarely invited to the table to lend their views as policy is being created.” Instead, the powerful and regressive interests behind censorship content cartels have embedded themselves into platforms’ policy teams, as “policy hires increasingly come from government, law enforcement, or the policy teams of other corporations, which has created a revolving door through which only a certain subset of people can enter.”
Although this paints a depressing picture—and York acknowledges that these are difficult problems without clear solutions—she holds out some hope that if major platforms continue to refuse to listen to their users, then new platforms that genuinely promote freedom of expression may rise to replace them, and that these may be “built and organized by BIPOC, trans folk, and sex workers.” Some signs of this can already be seen, with the rise of platforms such as Tryst for and by sex workers, and Fanexus for and by queer fans.
The War on Sex (which takes its own chapter in Silicon Values) is only one of the themes that York explores in this book; she also covers platform censorship of disfavored political speech, hate speech, and other forms of challenging content. At no point does she over-simplify the difficulty of how speech on these topics can be allowed while maintaining a safe and inclusive online environment for all. “But these are questions that we as a society must debate,” she urges, “rather than leaving their outcomes to corporations.”
Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism is recommended reading from an activist who has been covering platform moderation for longer than several of today’s large platforms have existed. In an area that doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions, York’s insights lay an important foundation for ongoing intelligent discussion of the topic.