The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Jillian C. York (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

September 23, 2021

Jillian C. York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, joins us to talk about censorship on social media platforms and her new book Silicon Values, out now on Verso.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hello, everybody. Welcome to re-imagining the internet. I remain Ethan Zuckerman here with you, and I want to introduce my dear friend, Jillian York. Jill is the director of International Freedom of Expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She is an activist, an author, a thinker about questions of human rights on the internet. Most recently she is the author of the really excellent Silicon Values, which I have been enjoying. Jill and I know each other from way, way back. We worked together on the global voices project. We worked together at the Berkman Klein center at Harvard, we've coauthored papers and book chapters together. So we are long-time friends and collaborators, but Jill, part of what was so exciting about this book for me is that it's really the story of a journey that you've been on for the last 10 years or so, really longer than that, maybe closer to 20, as an advocate for freedom of expression. Talk to me about the title, what's the difference between Silicon values, and the values that you end up holding forward as a human rights and freedom of expression activist?

Jillian C. York:

Yeah, so, you know, I mean the way I, that I see it, at least from my view of the world, which is very, you know, US and EU centric with a little bit of the Middle Eastern North African mix, Dan, is that we've kind of got like three sets of competing values. You've got US values, which tend to dominate the world based on the first amendment in particular, when it comes to speech, you've got universal human rights based values, which a lot of the world adheres to, and then you've got Silicon values, which are the very particular ideologies of a select few really privileged individuals. Some of whom like mark Zuckerberg had very little contact with the general public and these values tend to not really reflect what the rest of the world thinks.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And that's a really interesting twist because I think in many cases, people are used to this idea that we have a conflict between maybe US values, which tend to be centered around freedom of expression, maybe a more European value set, which takes privacy seriously, might be willing to sacrifice some freedom of expression for privacy. But you see the sort of Facebook, Twitter at all values, even breaking away from the American value set. What are the sort of pillars of that value set when, we're looking at Zuckerbergian values, because you, you do really have it in for Facebook within this book. What, give me a sense of what, those values and what that code looks like?

Jillian C. York:

Sure. And I mean, the reason I have it in for Facebook over other platforms is that they don't really listen. That's what really sets them apart and we'll get to that later. But yeah, I mean the, the Zuckerberg human values in particular, and they're just attributable to him, it's, you know, the people on his executive team and the people he's put around himself over the years, they favor political expression over all other types of expression. They don't weigh harm in, in kind of, you know, trying to assess what should or should not be allowed on the platform or where they should guide individuals. And they're very, very prudish when it comes down to it. They've got a very, you know, despite all of Facebook's proclamations about supporting the LGBTQ plus community, the rules themselves actually, you know, have a very old school binary view of gender and a very conservative view of gender and what is appropriate in terms of that kind of expression and in terms of sexual expression.

Jillian C. York:

And the really interesting thing about that, that drives me so absolutely nuts is the way that they blame it on their global community, in the rules themselves. They say, you know, due to some of the sensitivities of our global community. So it's saying, you know, well, because we have, I kind of shorthand this to say Saudi users, but it's not just them, of course. Because we have these users, we're not going to let the rest of you express yourselves. And that to me is, you know, that's, it's, there's nothing universal about that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

About a decade ago, the Arab spring swept through a region that you've spent a lot of time in, that you care very deeply about protests on and offline, platforms like Facebook really celebrated their role in making that moment possible. You have a moment where Sheryl Sandberg talks proudly about Facebook's role in Egypt. Talk a little bit about how these movements around the Arab spring used digital media, use these online public spaces, and how they were thwarted by them.

Jillian C. York:

You know, I mean, you and I, well, you play a big part in my life around this because you were the one who introduced me to what is now the Berkman Klein center back then is the Berkman center for internet society. And I started working there in, I always mess this up, but either 2007 or 2008, I think it was eight. And, you know, at the time Berkman was really interested in trying to understand the blogosphere, these various blogging communities, and particularly, I think the Egyptian community is one of the big focal points. And so, you know, the global voices meeting happened that summer introduced me to a lot of people from the region. I already had some Arabic under my belt. I had been living in Morocco, and so really just, you know, connected me in a very meaningful way through these friendships that I made.

Jillian C. York:

And so, these Arab uprisings come around and Facebook in particular was used, and, you know, the first couple of chapters of the book really get into this, but Facebook in particular was used to advertise to promote the January 25th uprising that occurred. It was, you know, take to the streets and as you know, and so I'll share this story for everyone else. You and I were kind of involved in a very bizarre way in that, because in November, 2010, a month before Tunisia rose up and over Thanksgiving weekend in the US Facebook actually took down that page, the page that would eventually call for that, that protest. And I mean, I think it's also really important to note the book draws this link and that how it stayed was a victim of police brutality and Alexandria.

Jillian C. York:

And so there's a big connection across the past decade of the role that these companies have played in police brutality specifically and shutting conversations around that down. But back then in November, 2010, you know, we got involved because Facebook had removed that page and they'd removed it, not because it was promoting violence, not because it was doing anything wrong, but for a much sillier reason because its administrators were not using their birth names. And for very good reason, you know, and Facebook was always very stubborn about this. We brought it to their attention back then. I raised it along with many other people over the years, but Mark Zuckerberg has very, very particular idea of identity and I, I'm not going to get the quote exactly right.

Jillian C. York:

But he believes that it's a lack of integrity to have more than one identity. Because of that this page was taken down and we had to fight to get it restored, and they eventually found a solution where someone using her real name, her birth name stepped in. And so then the uprising happens, the uprisings happen. And these companies kind of flip and are very, very happy to take credit for being the tool that enabled widespread promotion of these particular demonstrations. And I think that that really just kind of shows how they think when it's profitable, when it's good media, when it's well covered, they're happy to take credit. And otherwise they're very strict about sticking to the rules.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There's a bit of a sort of secret history in all of this, right, where you're sort of revealing a lot of these conversations that happen behind the scenes, our friend YL Go Nim, who was one of the administrators of that page. You make the argument that one of the reasons he was able to get that page back was that he was a Google employee and that it was sort of an inside Silicon valley thing, you know, if there hadn't been people like you who are sort of known to Silicon Valley, if there hadn't been YL, who was already known to Silicon valley, it would have been perhaps a different outcome in terms of that particular page. And, and you sort of speculate a little bit about the role of that page as a mobilizer. Talk a little bit about maybe in Syria, for instance, where the speech situation got so complicated as we started getting into the Syrian civil war, are these platforms, were these platforms a good place to document what was going on in history?

Jillian C. York:

Yeah. So in the beginning, you know, and I mean, obviously Syria is a really hotly contested topic and I'm sure I'm going to get blow back for my views on it, which is, always complicated. But you know, the short version of it is that March, 2012, when some of our friends took to the streets in Damascus. It was really like twenty five, thirty people, if I recall correctly.

Jillian C. York:

Way back then these were really, you know, non-violent protests. They started as kind of an echoing of what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt. And after some young boys in data province were arrested for their, you know, I can't remember exactly what they did, but they were arrested, the town kind of rose up in anger, and that's when the violence started and spread very quickly. And there's all, you know, all sorts of precipitating factors.

Jillian C. York:

Of course, I'm not a Syria expert by any means. But what happened with the platforms was really sad because in the beginning, I remember being at a conference, you may have been there as well, somewhere in California. And I remember there was this really, you know, strong feeling from these platforms that they needed to be there for the sake of documentation. And so they changed the rules and YouTube in particular changed their rules to allow things, even like beheading videos, because they recognized the importance of this documentation.

Jillian C. York:

But as the Islamic state grew, the companies fell under pressure from the U S government at first and then other governments and the public to, it's always to do more about terrorism. And as a result, they really flipped. They did a 180 and started taking down things that would be considered documentarian in nature. And over the years it's only gotten worse.

Jillian C. York:

What we've seen is Syrians without many, not much access to other tools. And I think that this is an important thing to note because some of the arguments that we get back, especially from the Western public is, well, why do Syrians need to use YouTube? Why can't they create their own site? Well, you're in a war zone. It's not that simple. And YouTube is right there on your phone, and it's not like Vimeo and Dailymotion are any better about this. So, you know, Syrians use YouTube to document what's happening on the ground, Libyans as well. We've already seen evidence collected on these platforms, particularly by Syrian archive. Mnemonic is the organization that runs that we've already seen it used in war crimes tribunals, but these companies, because of the, because of the Islamic state, because of Al-Qaeda because of the growing pressure around terrorism, they have sort of failed to take this into account. And they're increasingly using automation, which detects things in a way that is not nuanced. And therefore the content gets removed.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let's unpack the history a little bit, right? So as we're heading into the Arab spring, these platforms generally don't know that they're being used as points of mobilization, right? Facebook is enormously important in Tunisia. It's one of the few ways that video is getting out around the protests and then it's being picked up and rebroadcast on Al-Jazeera. It ends up being used in Egypt, thanks to you. And some other people behind the scenes sort of advocating for this to be out there.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There is this wave, this brief period where the platforms have thoroughly embraced this. I'm remembering an experience of being contacted by friends and Bahrain who have posted footage of police firing live ammunition at protesters, and they're just begging me to archive it as quickly as I can for fear that YouTube is going to take it down. And I do of course, but YouTube to their enormous credit, even without prompting from you, me or anybody else keeps it up with a page saying, look, this is violent content. It would normally be outside of our terms of service, but it's historically important, then we're going to leave it up.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And then you're saying there's a move after that, where they move in a different direction, you have this long and really thoughtful examination of what it means to be a terrorist group. Can you talk a little bit about sort of Silicon values and those Washington DC determinations of who is on these various different terrorism lists?

Jillian C. York:

Yeah, absolutely, and before I get into that, I just want to point out the one platform you didn't mention there, was Twitter. And I think Twitter was the only one to have that awareness primarily because of how Twitter had been used around Gaza in 2008, when Gaza was attacked. And so Twitter, had this very different view. And in fact, I remember in 2012, Twitter fighting, not, I guess, not fighting, but publicly declaring the importance of leaving up terrorist groups because of the response they were getting from countries in the global south. And I, the example I remember in particular, I don't remember if I included it in the book or not, was that a Kenyan police chief had spoken on the record about the importance of Al-Shabaab being able to use Twitter because it helped them to track it, to track their movements.

Jillian C. York:

So Washington DC's view of terrorism is a very vengeful one. It's, you know, who's classified as a terrorist on the United States, foreign terrorist organization list is based on who the US doesn't like or who has attacked the United States. This is very different from the EU approach and even the UK approach, as well as the UN approach, which is much narrower than all of them. And so, you know, I mean, I, there's a lot of expertise here that I don't know as well as some of the folks I quoted, Lisa Stent Mitski, I rely on her a lot for this and her excellent book on the politicization of the term, but basically the U S list goes far overboard in my opinion, and includes in a number of cases, groups, which are state actors or semi-state actors, and has billows the easiest example for me to talk about, because I know Lebanon very well. Now Has Bella is on the U S list they're on the German list.

Jillian C. York:

They other countries make a distinction between their military wing, their political wing, but basically what this means for the platforms. So the platforms have always, as far as I can tell, they never admit it publicly. They've always followed US law. Now, whether they're required to do so or not is kind of an ongoing legal question. There is case law around this. And when a group is additionally sanctioned by the treasury department in the way that some Iranian groups are, then, you know, there's much more of a legal liability, but for the most part, this is still up in the air.

Jillian C. York:

And yet, despite that these platforms have taken a very conservative approach, Twitter being the exception, although they've kind of changed over the years and that conservative approach means that they not only take down content posted by the terrorist groups, which would be a slightly reasonable position, I think, but they post, or they remove most things that are even dialogue about them.

Jillian C. York:

We've seen that they make exceptions. There's a report a couple of weeks ago from The Guardian on making exceptions and like Myanmar in the middle Eastern North Africa. But for the most part, this means that people in countries like Lebanon, where Haz Ballah, like it or not plays an important role in politics, people there, you know, can't necessarily talk about that and worse yet, you know, Lebanon has a very complicated history, as we know from what's been happening in the past couple of years there, but some of the political groups, some of the political parties are, have been, and still are also engaged in violence. And so the US and the companies based in the US are picking and choosing winners in that fight. And that to me is just the antithesis of how these universal values should work.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Is this a question of geographic concentration? IE all these people are in Silicon valley and don't necessarily have the knowledge on the ground of the dynamics of a place like Lebanon or Myanmar where Facebook has, has really had a difficult time, or is this more a question of scale? Is it just difficult to maintain a digital public sphere for hundreds of millions of people?

Jillian C. York:

I would say both. So on the one hand, I mean, it's always going to be a problem of scale. It is, it is very difficult to maintain a platform for, for millions, billions of people in the case of Facebook. And, you know, even with the best of intentions, which I'll get to in a second, I'm not sure that it's ever going to be possible to get this right.

Jillian C. York:

However, I would say that these companies don't have the best intentions. They don't have the best practices and in Facebook's case, and again, I'll focus on them, but I think all of these companies have issues. In Facebook's case, they haven't really tried. Their idea of diversity is to find, you know, some Ivy league educated person who happens to have the right ethnic background and kind of just install that person in a given region. And that's not how you do this.

Jillian C. York:

You have to have very real inclusion, you to have people who've worked and lived and grown up in a country, people of diverse backgrounds, not just in terms of their ethnicity, but in terms of their education level, their, you know, where they went to school, their gender, all of that is really important. And that's not how Facebook sees it.

Jillian C. York:

If you look at the very top, the executive team, you've got Zuckerberg and Sandberg and Schrag and Richard Allen, all these folks who've been embedded in this company from almost day one, but then you've also got people from UK government and US law enforcement. And those are the people at the top. And when you've got those people at the top, that's one very specific and problematic way of viewing the world. And then of course, you know, you've got great folks working in some of these regions, Abelia Kobe is one of them.

Jillian C. York:

We, we both know her well, I've got nothing but the utmost respect for her, but from what I understanding, and, you know, didn't hear this from her, but my understanding of how these regional office has worked is that they're under-resourced, they don't have control over the actual decision-making. And in some cases, you know, they're just figureheads. And I think that that's really the problem. It's deeply, deeply structural. We see some of the companies like Twitter doing a slightly better job on this, but even then still getting it wrong because they're not making the effort and particularly investment in getting it right.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So one of the things I found super interesting, just in the structure of the book, it really opens up talking about this problem of human rights, talking about this problem, afraid of the expression, really going through some of these complex in the middle east, going through these questions of how difficult it is to understand what's going on, on the ground when you don't have a regional office, or you have a regional office, but you're not really listening to it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But then you have this long discourse on something that I know that you have crossed swords with Facebook on, which is the female presenting nipple. So I'm interested both in the story, but also in sort of how this fits into your larger arc of talking about human rights and freedom of expression. Because I think a lot of readers find themselves, they're really sort of deep into this discussion of how Facebook is dealing with terrorism. And then we find ourselves dealing with what at first can feel like a different topic, but you end up arguing that it's, it's really fundamentally connected and connected to this idea of who gets to decide what is and what is not acceptable speech.

Jillian C. York:

Yeah. You know, it's funny cause I've been talking about this for a long time. And I mean, let me just say where I come from this on is, you know, I was raised in a very, very, very liberal environment. I was in the musical hair when I was like, I don't know, 16 has a nude scene. I wasn't allowed to be nude, but like, let me tell you, like in the, you know, after parties and stuff, we were all just getting naked, going swimming, things like that. And so I was raised with this, not in a very American way, but in a, I guess, a very sort of Northeast new England hippie kind of way. And so my comfort with the human body is essential to my views on free expression. Now that said, you know, it's funny because over the years I get a lot of pushback from conservatives, quite obviously, but also from folks on the left, but this just isn't an important issue.

Jillian C. York:

And it really, it really is. I don't think that, you know, I can't underestimate how vital it is to humanity. So for a number of reasons, I got to unpack this, on the one hand, you know, you've got things like the expression of breastfeeding moms. Folks who've had mastectomies, folks who are trans folks who are non binary, et cetera. And for them, a lot of this is absolutely vital expression. It's also vital expression for a lot of women who, for whatever reason, choose to use their body in their art, in their making a living, et cetera, including sex workers. So that's a huge part of it. But then another part of it that really just kind of gets me is the idea that women's bodies are sacred and sexual at the same time. And so we can't show the women's nipple. Now what even is a woman's nipple on the one hand,

Jillian C. York:

And then this is, what's really interesting about how content moderation works is because over the years, these companies have had to tie themselves in knots, basically to figure out how to moderate the nipple. So I used to use this as an example of how automation works, because I'll just explain this quickly, automation is, it's easier when you're talking about something that's easily classifiable. And Dave Willner's quoted in the book about this. He's one of Facebook's early architects, but imagine you've got a ball now you've got a ball and then you've got a square. Those are that's easily binary it's classifiable. And that's how Facebook and many other companies treat nipples. They say, okay, this is women's nipples. This is men's nipples or whatever. And that's kind of the problem is because number one, if we believe that gender exists on a spectrum and I very much do, then you've got a problem in kind of identifying what's a woman in the first place.

Jillian C. York:

And we see this in the example from the book with Courtney Dimona, a trans woman who using Instagram of Facebook property kind of, she was amazing. I was so happy to have found her and, you know, she documents her transition. And at what point, Instagram decided that she was a woman. And so when I talked to the companies about it, it's always hard to get a straight answer. Sometimes they blame it on their conservative audiences, but the, the quote that I got in the book, and this was kind of amazing because it was just a casual conversation with somebody who had one foot out the door. She just said very plainly. The reason that Facebook bans nipples is because your feed would be a bunch of nipples all the time. And I was like, okay, number one, they're male nipples on my feed all the time.

Jillian C. York:

And I don't want that either. But number two, if you've got all this automation technology, why not just allow me to be the one to flip the switch instead of you deciding for me what's acceptable. And that's really what it comes down to. That and the fact that, you know, I, unlike Facebook, I don't inherently believe that political expression is more important than cultural expression. Whether, again, whether we're talking about sexual health, sex work or just, I want to be topless on my feed. Why can't I do that? And, you know, I think being in Germany has really exacerbated this for me because not a day goes by in the summer where I don't see somebody nipples.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that's such an interesting point. I think the way that your linking political and cultural expression is something that's often pretty unfamiliar to American audiences. We're used to this idea that political expression is sacrosanct. We're going to protect the opinion there. We're used to this idea that cultural expression is also commercial expression.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And so we're used to this idea that, you know, maybe there's special rules for HBO, but for the most part, cultural expression is going to be within these certain boundaries. Maybe we'll make certain exceptions for, you know, a Ruben esque nudes. But, but I think you're making the point that they're the same thing and that what's tricky about a Facebook, a YouTube, so on and so forth is that by putting these rules in place, they're really kind of finding the universe of what's possible to express at scale, you can still express these things. You just might not be able to get the sort of audience that you would need to have a cultural impact without staying within those lines.

Jillian C. York:

Yeah. So, you know, last summer when I was finishing up the book, I was, I got really into Hamilton, right? Like I was late to the game. I got into it when it came out on Disney, I'm not, I'm not going to lie, but I got deep into it. And I was listening to it as I was writing. And what really struck me was how, you know, Alexander Hamilton was so key to the creation of, American law, of American ideology. And yet what took him down was the sex scandal. And that was fascinating to me. I didn't know that history, you know, I can tell you that we don't learn much in a public school in the US, or at least not where I was, but I didn't know any of that history. And it was really interesting to me that, that, I mean, I don't think that that's what sanctified that as an idea, but at the same time, you know, oops, you make one mistake and this is kind of how society is today still.

Jillian C. York:

I mean, I'm not talking about the really awful stuff, the stuff that involves minors, but like there's, you know, American ideology is very, very unaccepting of any kind of expression outside of that norm. And I think that that's what really, really bothered me. And that kind of was where I ended up, it was Hamilton that kind of pulled all these ideas together for me. And so, yeah, I mean, I, you know, I got asked a couple of weeks ago, what, I think I mentioned this in the book that if, if Facebook had been built in Germany, it would be very different. And I got asked how, and, you know, I mean, I'll be Frank about this, that German culture is much more accepting of sexuality, nudity, all of that expression. You can see it on the street in the summer. I mean, I was out the other day when it was really warm out and naked people, really literally.

Jillian C. York:

But if Facebook were German, it would be much less accepting of violence. And that's because of this country's history, you wouldn't be able to show swastikas. I mean, I don't think you can now anyway, but there was a while where you could. And so all of this is cultural. All of it's really dependent on the society where, you know, where were certain values were shaped, certain ideologies were created. And yet, you know, I think that having these platforms be so US centric is I think that US ideology is, is much more an anomaly in the world. I think that the way that cultural, I mean, the fact that you can see Kim Kardashian's rear end on Facebook, but you can't see, you know, other types of nude expression. And that really says it all because it's commercializable.

Jillian C. York:

So yeah, I mean, I guess that's what it comes down to for me is of course, you know, there is no such thing as free speech absolutism. It'll never be that way, but these platforms continue to really entrench US ideologies, create values in a very US centric way and then export them to the rest of the world. And it really is colonialism in its barest sense.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We had a wonderful interview on the show a couple of weeks back with the remarkable founders of Assembly For, which is an Australian collective of sex workers and allies who've built sweater as an alternative to Twitter to make it sex worker friendly. And of course they're doing this from a part of Australia where sex work is legal.

Ethan Zuckerman:

They have the server somewhere in Europe. They won't tell us where, because they are concerned about those questions. But even more than that, they've sort of found that they're concerned about coming to the United States. They're really worried that simply appearing in the US might open them to arrest. Despite the fact that what they're doing is running an open social network. So there is that way in which that had Gemini, you know, sort of extends to control over physical space. You and I both, you know, did a lot of our, our formative intellectual work at, at a place like the Berkman center, which, you know, really had a lot of these thoughts about sort of borderlessness and the internet as its own sort of original space you address in the book, John Perry, Barlow, and these sort of dreams of, of borderlessness.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Have we reached a point where we understand that that borders aren't going away and unfortunately there's still enormously powerful?

Jillian C. York:

Oh, yes and no. So I mean, Barlow and all of those early visionaries, you know, had, I mean, they were way ahead of their time in a lot of ways and thinking through these problems, which we're still trying to solve, you know, on the other hand, I mean, I don't think that they properly foresaw the role that American capitalism would play in all of this.

Jillian C. York:

And I think a lot of them were favorable or favorable toward American capitalism, you know, libertarian thinkers that, that saw the free market as being able to solve these problems with speech, which it never has and never will. And so, yeah, I mean, I think I, I'm an optimist in the idea that we could still see a borderless world in the future. I'm very much, you know, an advocate against borders, but yeah. In terms of whether or not we're going to see a borderless world, I mean, it's up to us, ultimately,

Ethan Zuckerman:

We'll look on that sort of hopeful question. I just want to thank you. This is Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, author of the excellent, the entertaining, the inspiring, the very much worth your time, Silicon Values. Thank you so much for being with us, and re-imagining the internet.

Jillian C. York:

Thank you, Ethan. It's been a pleasure.