Bowing to their better civic natures, and the pleas of James Foley's family, Twitter and YouTube have pulled down videos and photos of his murder. They had every right to do so, and in my view they did the right thing.
So why am I so uncomfortable with this? Because it's not clear what's too vile to host. And, even more, because Twitter and YouTube are among a tiny group of giant companies with greater and greater power—and less and less accountability—over what we read, hear, and watch online.
Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.
For the moment, it's reasonable to dismiss the widely repeated accusation that removing the Foley videos was an act of censorship. When Twitter worked with the Turkish regime to remove certain accounts, that was censorship, if by proxy, because it was done on the orders of a government. And, of course, when governments directly block Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other services, as some do, that is direct censorship. But when Twitter and YouTube took down a murder-as-propaganda video, that was editing. (Show me evidence that the U.S. government persuaded Twitter and YouTube to do this, as it almost certainly did when the major payment systems cut off Wikileaks' funding several years ago, and I'll revise that view.)
Editing, yes, but on an epic scale—and critics are absolutely right to raise some stark questions. What precedent does this set? What actual policies are at work? Are the policies being applied consistently? If it's appropriate to take down these videos and pictures, why not the images of so many others who've been the victims of ISIS and other criminals?
All are important questions, but the reason they're so important, again, is the clout these services exert in the information marketplace. There was little uproar, after all, when the anything-goes LiveLeak—which hosts videos that most others find beyond the pale—vowed not to post any ISIS beheading videos, on the reasonable grounds that it’s wrong to help murderers do public relations.
What makes so many free-speech protectors fret in the current situation, again, is not the instinct to protect an unwary public from encountering the worst of humanity, or to avoid helping barbarian propagandists. It is the slippery slope issue, and this is getting more worrisome every day with the growing domination of Facebook, Google, and Twitter over our media flow.
They’re dominant not because they’ve taken control, but because we’ve given them control—and not for all bad reasons. These services are enormously useful and convenient. But because we aren’t paying for these services, we users are, as the saying goes, the products being sold to advertisers. We have no rights beyond what the companies give us in their terms of service, where quaint ideas like the First Amendment have no application. When Facebook decides what you see in your timeline, you have no recourse—because you “agreed” to terms of service that are grossly one-sided and not constrained by the Bill of Rights.