Sacha Baron Cohen's ADL speech

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Keynote Address at ADL’s 2019 Never Is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate. Backup version on archive.org

I don’t often watch videos of this length, preferring instead to listen to the audio. Baron Cohen doesn’t use any visuals to accompany his message.

This is a really powerful speech. Obviously meticulously rehearsed, Baron Cohen rips into what he calls the ‘Silicon Six’:

Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s ex-sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter. 

He goes on to also make six points, which I’ll summarise in my own words using the occasional direct quotation:

  1. “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach” — new laws and regulations aren’t limiting freedom of expression, they’re a way to prevent giving bigots and paedophiles a way to “amplify their views and target their victims”.
  2. “We’re not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society.” — internet companies have “every legal right and a moral obligation” to kick nazis off their services.
  3. “Elected representatives, voted for by the people… [should] have at least some say” in deciding the fate of the world — the ‘Silicon Six’ pursue “ideological imperialism” and “care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy”.
  4. “There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist.” — technology companies should be employing more people to monitor content posted on social media, and take it down before lies are spread.
  5. Internet companies are “the largest publishers in history”, and should be regulated as such — Facebook should be fact-checking political adverts before they run them, and in general we should slow down. Not everything has to be available immediately to everyone.
  6. We should regulate internet companies — “In every other industry, a company can be held liable when their product is defective… It only seems fair to say to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter: your product is defective, you are obliged to fix it, no matter how much it costs and no matter how many moderators you need to employ.”

I don’t disagree with Baron Cohen but, by deconstructing his speech in the above way, you can see that this is quite a conservative argument in favour of governmental intervention. While he has to explain things in ways people understand, it also seems somewhat technically naive. The internet is not like a restaurant, nor are digital communications like the factories of the Industrial Revolution

Online hate speech and the spread of conspiracy theories and propaganda can be the proximal cause of violence. But, to my mind, they are fundamentally a symptom of deeper issues. There are other approaches, including three I’d like to highlight.

The first is financial: let’s get to the root causes of why and how companies become monopolies. A recent podcast episode by Seth Godin explains this better than I could. We can have free markets without (venture) capitalism.

Second, while this is not an easy problem to solve, returning to the decentralised nature of the early web would eliminate some of the problematic network effects we see. Local moderation on instances of decentralised social networks like Mastodon is a lot easier to do than trying to apply a single policy on a centralised platform for the entire world.

And then, third, vendor lock-in on social networks is a real thing. When a single organisation owns the social graph of which you are a part, you can’t take your connections and contacts elsewhere. Again, this is possible on decentralised, federated systems. We can pass laws to force interoperability and the right to import and export data.

I see this speech, and supporting work by organisations such as Amnesty International, as providing an inflection point. To be honest, I don’t think social media in 2024 is going to be anything like it is in 2019. Whether that’s for the better or worse, I’m not sure. What is certain is that we can’t continue as we are and still live within functioning democracies.