The 21st century Victorians

The Berlin-based writer and activist talked to us about Silicon Values, her new book on online censorship.

Jillian York
Jillian York

Berlin-Jillian York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Originally from the US, she's lived in Berlin-Friedrichshain for six years. We talked to her about her new book Silicon Values, which looks at the role of platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in censorship around the world.

By Silicon Values you mean the values behind the big Silicon Valley platforms. What are those values, exactly?

Silicon values are not democratic. And they’re very US-centric. After that it depends on which company. These values are not determined by international human rights frameworks or law but by the CEOs and executive teams of these companies. The impact this has on the rest of the world is that the standards that various societies and the international community have agreed upon are not really represented by these companies’ policies. If you look at Facebook, the vast majority of rules are based on Mark Zuckerberg and his team’s ideologies and what they think is acceptable or harmful.

For example?

When I talk about Mark Zuckerberg’s values, one of the best examples is around nudity and sexuality. In the US, we have a history of censoring what the US considers obscene content. Zuckerberg is just following an American cultural tradition with his rule set.

You call people like him “21st-century Victorians”

They’re imposing their cultural world view on the rest of us. Instead of blocking nudity entirely, they could use AI to detect nipples and give users the right to flip the switch. They could require identification to verify the user’s age. I find it troublesome from a gender perspective. They treat women’s bodies differently from men and don’t even consider the fact that we’re in a cultural moment where a lot of people see gender outside of that binary.

Image: Penguin Random House

In your book you describe how these companies work hand-in-hand with authoritarian regimes.

When these companies first launched they weren’t working so much with governments. They would only take down things when absolutely required to do so. Around 2007-2008 the Turkish and Thai governments threatened to block these platforms if the companies didn’t comply – YouTube specifically at the time. In both cases it had to do with people insulting leadership on the platform. In Turkey it was Atatrük, in Thailand it was the king. That’s an illegal act in both of those countries. Youtube had to make a decision about what to do and ultimately they decided the best solution was to remove individual pieces of content where possible and eventually they became transparent about that. As soon as those governments started to make those demands other governments around the world did as well.

What about censorship in Germany? The 2017 Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) requires networks with more than 2m users to remove hate speech.

Yes, and they have to do it within 24 hours of being notified. We’re seeing other governments including Turkey’s and India’s trying to implement worse versions of the law. This will have a chilling effect on speech because what will happen is that rather than try to detect nuance, they’ll simply put more blanket rules out there that ban more things.

Is there anything positive about the German law? It’s very clear about Holocaust denial, for example.

Holocaust denial is banned but other genocide denial is "okay". I understand the cultural context, but as soon as we start to pick and choose what speech is acceptable based not on a principle but on an event, I’m not sure the long-term benefit is really there. Germany still has Nazis, right? There're in the police force. I think it’s time for Germany to ask itself: Is this law framed the right way? Holocaust denial is a terrible thing but I’m not sure these kinds of laws are effective in solving the root problem. Previously, the way the German government would prosecute people for their speech was to fine them. Now they’ve transferred that responsibility to the companies instead of punishing individuals. So I question the effectiveness of the law.

What is your take on the de-platforming of Donald Trump?

I was very cynical about the timing. They waited until he was nearly out of office. It was clear he had violated the rules prior to that and was given special treatment. Politicians always have another platform. He can go on Fox News. He can hold a press conference. He's not being silenced. The people who are being silenced by these platforms are the people who don’t have another place to speak: the dissidents in authoritarian countries, the LGBTQ people. I know Berliners who dance burlesque. They’re not fully clothed but they’re not fully violating the rules and yet they were kicked off a lot of platforms and can't make a living in the pandemic.

Would Facebook have been different if it had been founded in Berlin?

I think hate speech would have been banned from the beginning. I think nudity would have been acceptable, at least in some format. I think we would have seen more progress with LGBTQ issues as Berlin is obviously a very queer city. 

My Berlin: Jillian C. York

Volkspark Friedrichshain

I love that you that you can get lost in it with all the hills. I like watching other peoples' dogs. Berlin dogs are fantastic. Berlin dogs are like little soldiers - so well behaved.

Tucker Brunch Bar, Wühlischstraße 1, Friedrichshain

A really vibrant place. Normally, they have brunch with drag shows. The owners are really sweet. In the pandemic, they’re staying safe with cocktails to go.

Boxhagener Platz food market, Saturdays

I buy a lot of my vegetables here. It’s really affordable compared to farmer’s markets in the US. My favourite stand has olive tapenade, and they have jars with Pfand.

Exploring the city on foot

I spend a lot of time walking through other parts of the city, getting to know the history. I walked around Charlottenburg, for example. It’s so different from Friedrichshain. I love the little back streets, the cool little shops. Lots of them are owned by foreigners. There are some really good second-hand stores.

A great online shop for artisan food products. I get Mexican and Middle Eastern stuff here. And Motel coffee and craft beer from Berlin. They deliver by hand every week.