In the winter of 2010, a 19-year-old Moroccan man named Kacem Ghazzali logged into his email to find a message from Facebook informing him that a group he had created just a few days prior had been removed from the platform without explanation. The group, entitled “Jeunes pour la séparation entre Religion et Enseignement” (or “Youth for the separation of religion and education”), was an attempt by Ghazzali to organize with other secularist youth in the pious North African kingdom, but it was quickly thwarted. When Ghazzali wrote to Facebook to complain about the censorship, he found his personal profile taken down as well.
Back then, there was no appeals system, but after I wrote about the story, Ghazzali was able to get his accounts back. Others haven’t been so lucky. In the years since, I’ve heard from hundreds of activists, artists, and average folks who found their social media posts or accounts deleted—sometimes for violating some arcane proprietary rule, sometimes at the order of a government or court, other times for no discernible reason at all.
The architects of Silicon Valley’s big social media platforms never imagined they’d someday be the global speech police. And yet, as their market share and global user bases have increased over the years, that’s exactly what they’ve become. Today, the number of people who tweet is nearly the population of the United States. About a quarter of the internet’s total users watch YouTube videos, and nearly one-third of the entire world uses Facebook. Regardless of the intent of their founders, none of these platforms were ever merely a means of connecting people; from their early days, they fulfilled greater needs. They are the newspaper, the marketplace, the television. They are the billboard, the community newsletter, and the town square.
And yet, they are corporations, with their own speech rights and ability to set the rules as they like—rules that more often than not reflect the beliefs, however misguided, of their founders.