The nation is witnessing increased suffocation of free speech in the past weeks, from YouTube banning right-wing figures to Pinterest censoring pro-abortion content. YouTube’s recently updated policies defining prohibited material is undeniably ambiguous, deeming material able to be censored if “inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.” This vague statement draws no lines in what it can censor, making these new policies dangerous.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai sat down in an interview with Axios on HBO in January to discuss Google’s, and by extension YouTube’s, censorship policy.
“We rank content based on quality … and really prevent borderline content,” Pichai said. “Content which doesn’t exactly violate policies, which need to be removed, but which still cause harm… [is] a hard societal problem because we need better frameworks around what is hate speech, what’s not, and how do we as a company make those decisions at scale, and get it right without making mistakes.”
Later in the interview, Pichai said, “We are making a lot of progress, but the thing we are trying to do is to bring more authoritative sources and fact checks on videos, which may be controversial.”
YouTube has undertaken this task of deciding what offends people.
“V for Vendetta,” a political thriller released in 2005, is a chilling depiction of what happens when a society loses their freedom to speak. Set in a post-world war 2035, Britain has succumbed to a brutal totalitarian regime. Through a series of speeches and intricate terrorist attacks by the masked vigilante V, the people rouse from their dormancy and into revolution.
In one of his speeches promulgated to the entire nation, V warns that silence is ignorant consent to the rise of a tyrannical regime.
“Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? You need only look into a mirror.”
Freedom was lost when they stood silent in the face of censorship. Though YouTube is a private company that is not regulated by the First Amendment, its censorship policies are already setting a trend in media platforms. V warns that consenting to these infringements inevitably escalates into loss of liberty. Once censorship begins, if unchecked, it can only lead to tyranny.
Not only do YouTube’s policies set an ambiguous precedent, but its censorship is also biased and unfair. It began by banning alt-right content, which morphed into targeting conservatives such as comedian and commentator Steven Crowder. Though YouTube retracted their ban on Crowder after recognizing their censored content could become inconsistent, their ambiguous hate speech policies can justify censoring all kinds of content.
Our free society facilitates and preserves public discourse through the freedom of speech. The freedom to speak necessarily goes two directions, however. It must defend all views so that none are silenced. Making offensive speech into a crime is “incompatible with a free society,” wrote Richard W. Rahn of the Cato Institute. The softer we respond to YouTube’s unpredictable and biased regulation of speech, the harder we will fall. We must stop the infringement of our rights no matter what our political positions are; you never know who will be silenced next.