Coronavirus Reveals New Age of Internet Censorship

Moha El-Jaw

Coronavirus Reveals New Age of Internet Censorship

You may be surprised who’s writing the new rules for online speech.

Try to send the “wrong” type of videos to your friends, and you may bump up against the new Internet censors.

For years, YouTube, Facebook and other sites have downplayed content they disapprove of—that’s old news. But now the censorship is becoming more aggressive.

YouTube has spent the coronavirus period playing whack-a-mole: It smacks down videos that present any kind of dissenting view on the crisis, only to see the same video reposted again and again. Some of these videos are by obvious quacks, but many are not. Some are even by mainstream experts. But if they question the lockdown or suggest fighting coronavirus by boosting your immune system and eating more vitamin C, down they come.

Other platforms are joining in. Simply smacking down videos and public posts hasn’t worked. People have still spread the forbidden information via private messaging apps—until now. Try sharing one of these problematic videos privately with a few friends on WhatsApp, and you’ll find yourself blocked. The Facebook-owned service limits how widely you can share these videos. In some cases, it will only allow you to pass the video on to one person at a time in a bid to stop it going viral.

One such video is from Sky News Australia of an interview with Swedish chief epidemiologist Johan Giesecke. It’s a mainstream news source interviewing a mainstream expert. Yet WhatsApp will block you from passing it on to more than one person.

“[W]hen an algorithm such as this ends up flagging a mainstream media clip featuring a dissenting yet extremely credible voice, just because it says something critical about Western responses to the virus, it’s clear we may have gone way too far the other way in our battle against fake news,” warned Izabella Kaminska, editor of the Financial Times’ Alphville blog.

The Financial Times is far from being some libertarian anarchist site. Yet even this center-left publication is concerned about the direction we’re heading.

“What matters is that criticism by a leading scientist in his field, who still holds sway over decision-making in a country deemed a close friend and ally—not a rogue state by any stretch—should somehow be thrown into the same net that catches David Icke conspiracy theories about 5G,” Kaminska continued. “You can dislike Giesecke’s views. But you shouldn’t suppress them. Dissent is essential in a democracy, as is criticism of national policy via respected peers. What are we supposed to do? Pretend Sweden suddenly doesn’t exist?”

Kaminska coined the term “censortech” to describe what is happening.

“Censortech, as we would like to coin it, is the skilful art of deploying algorithms to suppress ‘fake news,’” she wrote. “Could it be we are at the stage that this tech is becoming the modern-day equivalent of book burning?”

Many of the senior leaders of Big Tech are ideologically committed to it. YouTube ceo Susan Wojcicki admitted on the May 7 New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast that her strategy of promoting mainstream sources and downplaying others wasn’t working. They push the mainstream videos, but people don’t watch them. “The users don’t wanna actually see it,” YouTube’s engineers told her, according to the podcast. But she didn’t care.

And so the leaders have responded to coronavirus with more censorship. Search for information about coronavirus on Google, and you’re taken to a special part of the site that links only to mainstream sources. Encourage people to protest lockdown orders on Twitter, and you’ll see your account suspended.

Kevin Roose, who hosts the Rabbit Hole podcast, said that YouTube’s response is “actually like a fundamental shift in the YouTube universe.” It used to be the site where anyone could have a voice. But now, on certain subjects, only mainstream authorities are allowed.

I can see a case for restricting manifestly dangerous information, such as drink bleach to cure coronavirus. I can understand YouTube et al not wanting to promote videos that say things like coronavirus is a conspiracy caused by the Jews. But what is happening here goes far beyond that.

European governments want censorship to go further. Last Wednesday, France adopted a new law against online hate speech. If content is ranked as hate speech, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook must remove it in 24 hours. Terrorist propaganda or child pornography must come down within one hour. Failure to do so can result in fines of €1.25 million (us$1.4 million). And if a regulator board decides the company is not meeting the requirements, it could fine them up to 4 percent of annual global revenue. For Google, that figure would be $6.5 billion. And the police can force Internet service providers to block a non-compliant site everywhere in France.

“We can no longer rely on the platforms’ goodwill,” said Digital Affairs Junior Minister Cédric O. This, he said, “is the first brick of this new platform regulation paradigm.”

The law makes anything that is illegal offline, illegal online.

A lot of this law is laudable—especially the part about child pornography. The trouble is, “hate speech” and “terrorist propaganda” are pretty flexible terms, and the government gets to make the decisions. La Quadrature, a digital rights nonprofit, warned that, in French law, the definition of terrorism is broad enough that it could be used to shut down protesters. European courts have previously counted even academic criticism of Islam as “hate speech.” Germany last week decided that burning flags was hate speech. So burning an EU flag in protest of the European Union is now illegal.

One of La Quadrature’s spokesmen told cnn that this could give the government “a new tool to abuse their power and censor the Internet for political ends.”

“One of the dangers of this law is that it could turn against journalists, activists and researchers whom it claims to defend,” he said. “No one knows exactly what content should be considered ‘manifestly illegal’ online.”

The law could soon allow politicians to dictate what you can and can’t say online.

The worry is that Internet platforms will err on the side of deleting. Why risk a fine over a tweet? Social media sites could soon block or delete content that comes anywhere remotely close to being problematic.

“This new liability for illegal speech in France will get some nasty material off the Internet, but at the price of removing some content, perhaps a lot of content, that, on a close call, might be perfectly legitimate speech,” writes Forbes. “European lawmakers seem increasingly comfortable with that trade-off, as they move their Internet policy toward greater content regulation.”

Germany had exactly this experience. When it introduced a similar law in 2018, its own justice minister, Heiko Maas, found his tweets deleted after they were flagged as “hate speech.” The EU is currently working on a directive that would force the whole bloc to adopt a similar standard.

Too bad for France and Germany, you may be thinking. Good thing I don’t live in Europe. But this affects you too.

Even if you live in the United States, websites you use regularly already follow EU law.

“More often than not, it is the European Union that sets the rules by which multinational tech companies operate,” wrote Columbia Law School Prof. Anu Bradford last month. In 2018, for example, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (gdpr), which regulates how Internet firms use your personal data. Facebook, Microsoft and Google have all applied this policy globally.

“Similarly, EU rules influence the types of speech that Internet companies will allow on their platforms,” wrote Bradford. “Instead of being guided by America’s First Amendment free-speech protections, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube follow the EU’s definition of hate speech worldwide when deciding which content to remove from their platforms.”

Many of these companies have already signed up to a voluntary EU code on hate speech—under threat of much tougher regulation if they did not. These regulations have been incorporated to the firms’ official terms of service, even in the United States. When YouTube takes a video down because it violates its standards, what it’s not telling you is that those standards include rules foisted upon it by the EU.

Last year, the European Court of Justice (ecj) ruled that a judge in an EU country can order content taken off social media worldwide. An American can write a Facebook post aimed at Americans in America—but the ecj awarded European courts the power to order it taken down. The ecj noted that policing speech worldwide was a drastic step. Thus, courts must “adopt an approach of self-limitation” (emphasis added throughout). In other words, there is no check on these courts’ powers—no one can restrain them.

The past month has shown these American tech companies are not reluctant to censor. The EU is not behind the coronavirus censorship. In fact, social media is being pushed to do more. When the New York Times’ Kevin Roose interviewed Wojcicki, he praised YouTube’s censoring of information. “Just personally, I’ve been impressed by how hard it’s been to find misinformation about the coronavirus on YouTube,” he said. “And I guess I’m wondering, Why isn’t it always like this? What is preventing YouTube from taking this approach all the time to every subject?”

Even if the EU did nothing, a lot of this censorship would still be going on. The Big Tech ceos overwhelmingly support Democrats. But it still matters that the EU writes the rules. It has drawn up the borders of acceptable speech, and European judges patrol them. They’re already pushing Facebook and Google toward more censorship than the tech giants would have otherwise implemented.

In her book The Brussel’s Effect, Bradford argues that “the EU remains an influential superpower that shapes the world in its image.”

“Today, few Americans are aware that the EU regulations determine the default privacy settings on their iPhones or the type of speech that Twitter will delete as unacceptable,” she writes.

And who is the undisputed leader of Europe—as well as the first European country to adopt online hate-speech laws? Germany. Behind the EU’s global regulations, Germany is controlling what goes online.

Germany’s ambitions for the Internet should concern everyone, even those who don’t have a computer,” wrote Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry. “The EU’s behavior on this issue exposes the dictatorial nature of this German-dominated entity. Really, we are witnessing the manifestation of the spirit of the Holy Roman Empire in the tech world. The biblically prophesied seventh and final resurrection of this empire wants to control the Internet!”

“We must put this issue in the context of Bible prophecy and history,” he continued. “The German-led EU is behaving the way the Holy Roman Empire has always behaved. Germany is once again seeking to impose its will on the world. This is a difficult message to accept, and many people will disagree with it, but it is the truth!”

The Internet is changing before your eyes. It was once a free-for-all. Now the vast majority of traffic is funneled through a handful of gatekeepers, which will only allow you to see certain things. And it is the German-led European Union that is determining exactly what you can and can’t see.

This new power is already making itself felt, and it wants to control what you read and say. This is exactly the kind of power forecast in the Bible—and one we’ve been forecasting for decades.

Revelation 17 describes a power that repeatedly rises in Europe. What is rising today is an extension of what has gone before. Revelation 17:8 calls this power “the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” There’s a power with a similar, censorious character that comes and goes on the European scene—the Holy Roman Empire. The next chapter shows this power dominating global trade and commerce. We see this building in the EU’s regulatory “superpower.” Other chapters describe this power regulating religious belief, trying to control what people think and say.

This power, rising in Europe, is already making itself felt around the world. A crucial part of end-time events is already affecting your life. To learn more about it and where it is leading read Mr. Flurry’s article “Germany Is Taking Control of the Internet.”