This week, civil liberties veteran David Davis MP was censored for the first time in his 35-year political career. His rousing speech against domestic vaccine passports was deleted from Big Brother Watch’s YouTube channel for “contradicting expert consensus” of health authorities and the World Health Organisation.
Freedom of speech has never been limited to the consensus of authorities – except perhaps in North Korea, or China, where freedom of speech means only the freedom to support the will of your government. In a genuine democracy, freedom of expression means precisely the freedom to challenge authorities. But that conceptualisation of free speech is dying a slow death in the madness of our authoritarian online world.
China would be proud. Particularly when the Big Tech companies decided to suppress discussions of the idea that Covid-19 might have originated in a Wuhan lab. Former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, told this newspaper last June that a lab leak was a plausible possibility – yet scientists, pundits and citizens expressing the same on social media were censored and banned for spreading “misinformation”. A year later, the lab leak theory is now publicly acknowledged as one taken seriously by the intelligence community.
Incidentally, YouTube’s censorship of David Davis comes one year after social media companies suppressed mention of Hunter Biden’s embarrassing laptop contents, allegedly revealing that he sold access and influence while his father was Vice President. The social media blackout of the story on the altar of “disinformation”, a claim that was never substantiated, could have affected the US election and thus the course of history.
It is not the first time Silicon Valley’s panicked, and often politicised, policing of speech has cast a post-truth net over the public forum. At the start of the pandemic, Facebook banned claims that masks were an effective protection against the transmission of Covid, asserting that such claims were harmful “misinformation”. Months later, they started banning those who claimed masks were not significantly effective.
A handful of companies now control the speech rules of billions of people worldwide. They have censored British politicians, potentially affected US elections, and withheld public health information, all on the ever-fluctuating altar of “misinformation”. They have even acted in concert to ban a serving president from the online public square.
Yet, the presiding moral panic seems to focus more on what our Big Tech overlords should do to control speech online – not what they need to do to protect our dying culture of free speech. That’s because in the current era of safetyism, free speech has been recast as a danger to democracy, and company bosses as omniscient gods who have a responsibility to protect us from the words of our peers – even our politicians. The truth is, freedom of speech is the foundation of democracy, and it is crumbling beneath our feet.
The government is only too keen to expand the speech-policing role of tech companies, imposing a legal duty on them in the Online Safety Bill specifically to monitor and suppress lawful speech that could be deemed “harmful”. It is a censors’ charter that abandons the rule of law in favour of corporate speech control.
It was only by threatening YouTube’s reputation, and embarrassing the company in the press with this latest incident of censorship, that our video of Davis’ brilliant speech was reinstated on our channel. But those who don’t have the platform to stand up to the company are being silenced in silence. This has to be a wake-up call that free speech is under severe threat online and it is our duty to protect it.
Silkie Carlo is the Director of Big Brother Watch