US senator Claire McCaskill’s bid to clarify the act that gives internet firms a get out of jail card over content published on their sites has alarmed Silicon Valley
One of the things we learned in 2016 was how the internet is affecting democratic politics. We discovered how fake news spreads like wildfire through social networks, how Google’s dominance of search and ownership of YouTube can distort the public sphere and how “alt-right” political activists have mastered the affordances of the technology to build a formidable propaganda system. We also discovered what we ought to have known a long time ago, namely that the internet holds up a mirror to human nature, and that some of what we see reflected in it ain’t pretty.
Throughout all of this it’s been instructive to observe the intellectual contortions of the internet giants. Their pole position has always been a claim to the freehold of the moral high ground. They stand by the first amendment to the US constitution and are mere conduits for the free expression of free citizens. It is not for them to determine what can and cannot be uttered on their platforms. And if some of what is uttered is tasteless, cruel or otherwise vile, well, that’s just how folks are. If Google’s search algorithms favoured sites that specialised in hate speech, antisemitism and worse, well that was nothing to do with Google. After all, none of its employees was involved in highlighting that stuff.