Discover more from Academy of Ideas
No, private companies should not be censoring online debate
As the battle for free speech on campus hots up as a new academic year begins, read this speech by international relations student Emma Zaoli from last week's SpeakEasy event at the House of Lords.
When Royal Holloway University debating society invited Claire Fox to give a talk on free speech, the students union pressured the society to cancel her. Following this free-speech outrage, members of the debating society teamed up with students from Exeter University who had started a group aimed at defending free speech on campus, called SpeakEasy. The group has now inspired students at other universities, too.
As riposte to this censorship, SpeakEasy were invited to the House of Lords for their first event, a showcase debate, which took place last week. In a packed room, six young debaters tackled the motion ‘This House believes that private companies have the moral authority to censor online legal speech’.
The Speakeasy founders will, of course, be at Battle of Ideas festival - because we are the UK's home of free debate. Free speech on campus and academic freedom will be important themes of the festival.
Below we feature an excellent speech from the showcase debate made by Emma Zaoli, a summer intern at Ideas Matter and an international relations student at South College, University of Durham, who made a cogent case against the motion.
You can support the work of the Academy of Ideas by becoming a paid subscriber to our Substack. You’ll also get discounted tickets to our events, including the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 28 & 29 October. And there’s still time to take advantage of early-bird ticket prices until Monday 25 September.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the House.
In 1981, Ida Wells, a black journalist, was fired from her job in Tennessee for writing articles criticising the racial discrimination of black people. Oscar Wilde had his works banned in England due to their homosexual content and was later criminally persecuted. In the nineteenth century, Emily Brontë had to pretend to be a man because the publishing industry chose to discard anything written by a woman.
This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is censorship.
I ask you, in the world of today, this would be deemed absolutely unacceptable, would it not? The proposition doesn’t think so. What is more, the proposition believes that companies should not limit themselves to simply censoring illegal and harmful speech, but move on to censor legal speech that they deem to be morally wrong.
The problem with censorship is that it will always be in favour of the status quo. It is the people in charge - The Establishment - who are setting the parameters of acceptable speech.
Gay people fighting for rights 50 years ago probably caused great offence at the time, but if they had been subjected to the level of censorship we are currently talking about, gay people would not have rights today. Dickens criticising Victorian capitalism, Jane Austen challenging the social role of women, Sally Rooney challenging the idealised perception of romance in Normal People, all gave offence and caused great controversy, but it is thanks to them that we have reached the level of freedom we have today. Giving offence is what pushes humanity forward.
This said, I am going to assume everyone here understands why censoring speech is bad as we all are, after all, at the launch of a free-speech society.
So, let’s get further into the motion. This House believes that private companies have the moral authority to censor online legal speech. The word moral is an interesting one. According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of moral reads: connected with principles of right and wrong behaviour.
Now, I really do not think establishing the parameters of what is right and what is wrong is at the top of Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk’s to do list. The main concern of all these private companies, may it be Amazon or The Sun, is profit. Companies will always act on a profit incentive not on a moral one.
And what does this look like? It looks like the Communist Party of China paying companies to censor any media that exposes them for committing mass genocide against Muslims. It looks like media companies censoring any article or post that criticises the EU, not because the EU politely asked them to, but because they gave them money.
Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like government censorship.
It immediately becomes infinitely easier for governments or political parties to control what media the population consumes if they can simply pay a private company to do so. This goes against the very principle of democracy, because in order for democracy to work you need an informed population. You need a population that knows the truth. The only way to strip out this cancer on our democracy is to take away the private sphere's capacity to censor.
Moreover, it’s not going to work. Private companies have not hired some sort of ‘morality police’ who are going to personally scrutinise every article or tweet written. There will be an algorithm in place that is programmed to censor certain types of content. This will cause people to shift their content in a way it will get past the algorithm, which leaves zero space for creativity and new ideas and in turn just creates a mass of routine, monotone content.
And to make matters worse, a simple algorithm can destroy your entire career and put you into poverty. For example: a YouTuber who had been creating content on the Second World War since 2019 recently saw his account demonetised. Do you know why? Because he covered anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1940s. Four years of hard work down the drain just for shedding light on the horrors of the Holocaust.
There are many, many examples such as this one, and this isn’t even taking into account all the writers, journalists, artists, etc, that self-censor what they want to say out of fear of a simple algorithm. If this goes on, in a few years’ time we’ll be looking at a dumbed-down population with limited and inaccurate knowledge, as well as a distorted perception of the reality their governments want them to have.
Granted, it is not always an algorithm that does the censoring. I don’t think even AI could have ever thought to censor words such as fat, crazy, or even female, as seen in the ‘newly rewritten’ Roald Dahl books. You can’t even claim that Netflix re-writing the Roald Dahl books is to be ‘inclusive’ and not cause offence, because if they really were these fighters for the greater good that they claim to be, they would stop streaming films like The Wolf of Wall Street, which degrades and objectifies women every 30 seconds - another example of companies having profit incentives, not moral ones.
We cannot allow companies to censor art just because they bought the rights to it. What if Netflix bought the rights to Jane Austen’s books? What if they decided to start rewriting Pride and Prejudice? Does a private company have the moral right to edit a precious work of literature which is part of the national heritage of the United Kingdom? If the proposition gets their way, you will all lose the freedom to decide what art you want to engage with.
So, if you believe that it is time to stop private companies from carrying on this long-standing tradition of policing the parameters of acceptable thought, if you believe in our liberties and freedoms as a democratic population, and if you believe - in freedom of speech, vote against this motion today.
Emma Zaoli is an 18-year-old student at Durham University studying Politics and International Relations. Follow her on X/Twitter here.