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2 November 2021

It’s the tech giants, not socialist politicians, who are coming for our liberty

As algorithms take over our lives, the issue of Big Tech censorship can no longer be dismissed as a fringe concern.

By James Bloodworth

For much of the 20th century the political right was preoccupied with the threat to free societies posed by the state. In its scariest incarnation, the big state was represented by totalitarian entities like the USSR.

Yet classical liberal thought, which would come to dominate right-wing political parties in the West during 1980s, saw a common thread running directly from social democratic welfarism to the gulag – a “road to serfdom”, as the title of Friedrich Hayek’s famous defence of laissez-faire capitalism phrased it.

The Austrian-born Hayek’s traumatic experience living on the periphery of a collapsing Weimar Germany fostered in him a belief that social democracy – as opposed to a decrepit capitalism – generated the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. It laid the groundwork for fascism, Hayek argued, by sapping people’s attachment to individual liberty.

While Hayek’s view of social democracy was overblown – post-Second World War Europe enjoyed a period of remarkable freedom and prosperity under 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 The Road to Serfdom (and as millions behind the Iron Curtain were discovering for themselves), the technocratic state “gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of”.

And yet, an obsession with the overmighty state – part of our 20th-century Hayekian inheritance – can also blind us to the threats to freedom posed by private corporations. Indeed, the gravest threat to liberty in the West – for the time being at least – arguably comes not from state-backed totalitarianism, but from private Big Tech corporations.

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The revenues of the big six tech firms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Netflix – individually outstrip those of many nation states. In 2019, Alphabet, the holding company that owns Google and its video platform YouTube, brought in $162bn in revenues – more than Hungary’s entire economy.

We increasingly rely on Big Tech algorithms to facilitate everything from our connections to one another via social media, to the people we date, to the information we consume. And platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (also owned by Facebook) and YouTube (owned by Google) have the power to censor us should they wish to. The fact they don’t (usually) is surely beside the point. The fact is, most of us could probably do very little about it were we to be suddenly expelled from their platforms.

Last week we were given a useful reminder of just how powerless we are when Novara Media, a left-wing broadcaster with 170,000 subscribers, had its YouTube channel abruptly taken off the air. In an email to Novara, YouTube reportedly said the broadcaster was guilty of “repeated violations” of YouTube’s community guidelines. According to the company, a YouTube channel is “terminated” if it accrues three “strikes” by flouting the platform’s “community guidelines”.

Something similar recently happened to a friend of mine. The filmmaker and former BBC and Channel 4 journalist David Fuller branded YouTube “unfit for the purpose for hosting journalism” after the platform arbitrarily took down two videos from his Rebel Wisdom channel – films that presented critiques of anti-vaccination arguments – on the basis that they constituted “medical misinformation”. Fuller’s channel was also given a YouTube “strike”.

In both instances, YouTube later reversed its decisions and released statements saying the videos had been incorrectly removed. It appeared that YouTube’s error-prone algorithm was to blame. YouTube, the world’s largest video platform, deletes around 2,000 channels every hour – so many in fact that human employees outsource at least some of the platform’s moderation to algorithms. Yet many of the rules governing what gets taken down by YouTube – or “demonetised”, a step sometimes taken to prevent content creators from generating ad revenue – remain opaque to company outsiders.

Right-wing content creators have frequently been on the receiving end of Big Tech censorship. And so, until YouTube came for Novara’s left-wing channel, many progressives stayed conspicuously silent about Big Tech censorship – or worse, they unthinkingly cheered on the removal of content by the tech giants. Their reasoning for doing so often sounded more libertarian than leftist. As Novara Media’s very own video editor Gary McQuiggin put it back in 2020 when US president Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, “It’s not censorship when a private company decides to remove you from its platform.”

Some of this liberal complacency arguably stems from the assumption that modern corporations share their socially liberal attitudes. Indeed, in recent times the rise of “woke capitalism” has seen corporations turn virtue into profit. Big Tech has grown adept at talking the language of “equality” and “diversity” – while simultaneously pursuing its own profit-driven agenda. Amazon, the largest multinational in the world – where I discovered workers urinating into Coca-Cola bottles when I went undercover at the company in 2016 – even lists “equity” as one of its guiding principles.

Big-state totalitarianism may have been the curse of the 20th century. Yet as the philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, an obsession with totalitarianism can lead to us “becoming blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved”.

Our apparent willingness to let Big Tech dictate the information we consume is an apposite example of the “blindness” Arendt was referring to. When Big Tech corporations wield a greater degree of power than many modern nations, the big state is probably not the only bogeyman we should be worried about.

“This is what we believe,” Margaret Thatcher is rumoured to have told Conservative Party colleagues while brandishing a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. In our complacency about private corporations, we still live in Hayek’s shadow. But as Orwell noted in his review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Hayek was blind to the fact that “free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly”.

Monopoly is precisely what Big Tech has bestowed upon us when it comes to our online lives. As such, the issue of Big Tech censorship can no longer be waved away as a private corporation acting on its own private interests. Indeed, it’s high time we sloughed off the outdated dogma that says that the state alone is capable of thwarting political liberty.

[See also: The goodness business: how woke capitalism turned virtue into profit]

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