Future Tense Newsletter: Who Gets to Police the Internet?

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote that people like him shouldn’t have the power to decide who’s “allowed on the internet.”

Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Greetings, Future Tensers,

As many took to the streets to protest hate, intimidation, and organized racism in the United States, activists also intensified pressure on social media and web hosting companies to crack down on the vitriolic content that appears on their platforms.

In one of the most publicized examples last week, GoDaddy dropped neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer after it published content critical of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer. Google Domains and other services soon followed suit. Until recently, there was one notable holdout: the server company Cloudflare. But a few days later it, too, acquiesced to public outcry as CEO Matthew Prince made what he called “an arbitrary decision” to pull the plug. As Will Oremus writes, the cascading events show the deep flaws of the system in which a small number of companies can make such determinations on a whim.

Facebook, too, provided yet another example of why we need clearer frameworks for content regulation last week. Alongside its purge of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate group pages, it also banned a conservative, Los Angeles–based street artist named Sabo. The timing of Sabo’s suspension was curious, explains April Glaser. Though the inflammatory artist has been booted from Facebook for his hateful art before, this last removal came shortly after he hung “Fuck Zuck 2020” posters in a number of California cities—seemingly showing that the social network has a lower bar for banning speech when a user insults its CEO.

While we look for clearer and fairer policing from powerful American internet companies, government shutdowns of the web in parts of Pakistan and Cameroon provide prescient reminders of the critical role that free and open platforms play in a democratic society.

Other things we read this week between panic-scanning the internet to find out how bad it really was to have looked at the eclipse without protective eyewear:

  • Touch ID: Apple’s next iOS will come with a new feature that lets users quickly disable Touch ID as a way to unlock their phones—an extra layer of protection that could prevent law enforcement agents and others from forcibly gaining access to personal devices.

  • Science police: Keith Kloor explores how researchers in highly controversial fields struggle to balance science and advocacy.

  • The public voice: As genetic engineering advances, Robert Cook-Deegan and Jane Maienschein believe there should be an open public debate about the ethics of genetically engineering humans.

Rubbing my eyes,

Emily Fritcke

for Future Tense

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