Silicon Values, book review: A history of online censorship in the Big Tech era

In this book, the EFF's Jillian C. York shows how decisions made in the tiny Silicon Valley area of California play out on the ground in places like Myanmar, Morocco, and the Middle East.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism • By Jillian C. York • Verso • 285 pages • ISBN: 978-1-78873-880-4 • £16.99  

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's 1995 essay, The Californian Ideology, warned of many dangers: neoliberalism Silicon Valley-style; the rising power of corporations and the diminishing power of the state; the dangers of techno-utopianism; the biggest tech companies' failure to pay taxes; their founders' refusal to acknowledge the help they received and the infrastructure they relied on; and their resulting blindness toward the downsides of the culture around them. 

SEE: Building the bionic brain (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

It's fashionable to say that no one could have predicted the impact of Facebook on Myanmar or the 2016 EU referendum and US presidential election, but in Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism Jillian C. York, citing Barbrook and Cameron, begs to differ. In this history of online censorship, York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has a simple explanation for our present mess: nothing was done to prevent it. 

Simple, but not simplistic. In this book, the result of more than ten years of work in the field, York travels the world to pick out the most significant cases that show how the decisions made in the tiny Silicon Valley area of California play out on the ground in places like Myanmar, Morocco, and the Middle East. Instead of 'changing the world', the reality is that while they prize out-of-the-box thinking in engineering, when it comes to policy these companies prefer the status quo.  

"As such, Silicon Valley policy-making has increasingly come to resemble that of government; and given the absence of any vestige of democratic participation, that means authoritarian government," York writes. This has been exacerbated by the increasing tendency to hire policy personnel from the ranks of government and law enforcement.

Global censors

 'Surveillance capitalism' -- Shoshanna Zuboff's phrase -- is the enabler of a system that's in a position to decide what we're allowed to express and how we're allowed to express it. Yet these global censors repeatedly fail to understand local culture and, York shows, fail to come up with alternatives to keep-or-take-down, such as creating an archive of historically important material that is better kept out of public view, such as beheadings. However, "When the potential harm to Americans is big enough, these companies will act." 

In recent months, conservative US politicians and media have been complaining that they're being censored by the big platforms. Yet repeatedly York shows that those who lose their voices on these platforms are not the people complaining on the floor of the US Congress but the already marginalised, such as sex workers and protesters.  

Meanwhile, after years of advancements in AI, people are still being censored by automated systems with little more 'intelligence' than AOL's automation demonstrated in 1995 when it blocked people for giving their address as Scunthorpe. York's history starts around that time; earlier open (Usenet, IRC) and proprietary (the WELL, CompuServe, bulletin boards) systems are out of range. 

York ends as the pandemic arrives to push us all into our homes and onto online services, which took advantage to expand their control. However, the pandemic coupled with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, has also led the platforms to demonstrate both greater willingness and greater ability to moderate harmful content. They could, York writes, have done this all along...but chose not to bother.


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