There has been renewed discussion recently over the role YouTube is playing shaping the ideas and views of Americans, ending in this embarassing performance by Susan Wojcicki at The Code Conference.

Although plenty of energy has been directed toward The Algorithim, a current catchall for all things scary in tech, I am delighted that our criticism of technology is finally getter a little deeper. I think we’ve turned the corner away from fighting about whether systems engineered by humans make biased decisions (of course they do), and we’ve moved on to a more insitutionalist argument against the way Big Tech, and more importantly, our government, responds.

The problem with hate speech, bullying, radicalization, and extremism on large, centralized platforms that rely on human generated content is not that we try to build tools that can manage the unrelenting firehose of data. The problem is that we refuse to regulate and enforce principals-based policies on speech. I owe this thought to Emily Bazelon who astutely pointed out, in an almost throwaway comment, that we have no problem regulating industry in all kinds of ways, except tech, except when it comes to copyright protections.

And here lies the failure of neoliberalism— we have totally failed to find ways to recognize non-economic harms of speech. With copyright, our laisse faire attitude toward regulation is gutted quickly and effectively, because of course we have to protect the economic interests of artists 1. But when it comes to the social, cultural, and political interests, we are suddenly powerless. We are beholden only to rigid rules-based systems and our capacity to require and engaged in human judgment is stripped from us.

We can’t block bigots, hate, or harrassment because we cannot possibly identify them and they have no harm in a massive sea of endless content. We’re all supposed to believe that.

I’m glad it seems we don’t any longer. I hope we take action.

  1. Where artists are defined as large shell corporations of so-called rights holders extracting value out of other people’s artistic work that’s decades old. ↩︎