Silicon Valley’s mega-platforms are being deluged with criticism from across the political spectrum. Commentators lambast Facebook and Twitter for accepting ads from Russian media, and decry the companies for undermining the democratic process. They critique the companies for not doing enough — about harassment, fake news, and hate speech — as well as for doing too much, like arbitrarily censoring political criticism and other vital speech.
The Economist, which for years spoke positively of social media, now proclaims it a threat to democracy. The British novelist Howard Jacobson has recently made headlines in dozens of publications for his ominous warnings about the effects of Twitter on young people. Perhaps most irritatingly, Niall Ferguson — who never had much to say on the subject before — has written a book documenting the ways in which social media companies have become hegemonic powers — and is promoting it as if he were the expert on the topic.
The fever pitch of the current debate would suggest these are new phenomena. But the conversation about the role of the corporations who rule our online spaces has been going on for nearly a decade. And from the early days, it’s a conversation that has largely been led by women and marginalized groups both in the US and abroad.
But you wouldn’t know that based on who is getting the most airtime today: the same kind of Authoritative Men that have always seized the conversation once it became lucrative enough to take charge.
Debate about the role of online intermediaries in the global sphere began in earnest back in 2000, when a French court ruled that Yahoo was required to prevent residents of that country from accessing or participating in auctions of Nazi memorabilia and other illegal content. Rather than develop or utilize technology to block French residents from accessing its auction site, Yahoo eventually decided to remove items associated with Nazism globally, prohibiting items that are “associated with groups deemed to promote or glorify hatred and violence.” This set a precedent for online platforms.
Yahoo made headlines again in 2005, when the company handed over user data to the Chinese government that resulted in the imprisonment of at least three individuals for dissident activities. The company had offices in mainland China and was thus legally obliged to do so. At the same time, Google (which famously shut down its Chinese offices in 2010) was rolling out a filtered search engine for the Chinese market, while Microsoft was censoring content on MSN Spaces at the demand of Chinese authorities.
An early and pioneering critic of these companies was Rebecca MacKinnon, whose work has continued to be influential in the field. In a 2006 piece for the Nation, MacKinnon questioned the decision of US companies to censor at the behest of undemocratic foreign governments, and suggested that such actions help to legitimize political censorship as an accepted business practice.
MacKinnon’s work on the complicity of US companies with foreign governments gained ground, eventually leading to the creation of the Global Network Initiative. At the same time, internet giants were increasingly censoring content of their own volition, both at home and abroad. In 2007, in one of the first cases of such an incident making international headlines, YouTube deactivated the account of prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas after he posted videos showing police brutality.
Incidents involving Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter soon followed, and a pattern began to emerge: The majority of individuals affected by content takedowns and account suspensions came from marginalized groups. They were activists, LGBTQ individuals, atheists in deeply religious countries. Suddenly, journalists began covering these events with relatively high frequency.
In 2010, two minimally-acquainted academics — both women and today, well-known scholars — wrote blog posts just one day apart, analyzing the growing centrality of Facebook in users’ networks. In one post, Zeynep Tufekci argued that a core issue facing Facebook — and thus intermediaries in general — was the lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. Those protections include the right to expression.
Similarly, danah boyd made the point that Facebook had become a utility, akin to the telephone system in the United States, and should be treated as such.
The work of these women, and many others, set the foundation for discussions that would emerge over the ensuing years: The 2012 debate about “real name” policies, prompted by the launch of Google Plus (and led by women, including my colleague Eva Galperin and former Google employee “Skud” aka Alex Bayley); the 2013 push for Twitter to do more about harassment (shepherded by activists such as Soraya Chemaly and Jaclyn Friedman); the ongoing fight against “revenge porn” (ushered ahead by professors Mary Anne Franks and Danielle Keats Citron); and the “Free the Nipple” campaign (founded by filmmaker Lisa Esco and taken up by countless women, including celebrities).
Today, many of the leading voices on the topic in journalism, academia, and activism are women and gender non-conforming individuals. But as in many fields, men are often reaping the highest rewards: book deals, highbrow op-eds, and keynote speeches. And while women often ensure credit of each other’s work, many recent articles on the subject by men are bereft of any mention of the pioneers that came before.
Men receiving credit for women’s work is nothing new, of course. In the sciences, it’s called the “Matilda effect,” and refers to a pattern in which female scientists’ accomplishments go unrecognized, and credit is disproportionately allotted to men. It’s also perhaps not so surprising that this is happening in tech, a field that still has a pronounced gender gap — and one where sexism is often tolerated, or disguised as concern.
It matters that the debate about the role of online platforms is being led by a diverse set of voices: those most affected by bad decisions made by these companies remain marginalized groups. People of color seem to experience censorship at higher rates, while women still bear the brunt of harassment on social platforms. When men take the lead on the discussion, these facts often go unheard — instead, the conversation is focused on the effect on American elections or the risks of censoring hate speech: topics that serve the privileged. It’s time to bring the pioneers back to the forefront.
Jillian York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her work focuses on state and corporate censorship.