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Interview: “We need independent funding for local and niche media. Conglomerate-owned media can never be truly free.”

Jillian C. York, Director for International Freedom of Speech, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Jillian C. York | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Mark Zuckerberg and you have something in common: You both praise freedom of expression online. How does your interpretation of the term differ from his?

The main difference between Mark Zuckerberg and me is that I see free expression as a universal principle that doesn’t have exceptions simply based on my morals. Mark Zuckerberg praises free speech, but restricts (for example) the show of breasts on his platform, even when for artistic purposes, because “some people don’t like to see that.” He forbids anonymity, which is a key tenet of free expression. He seems to believe that free expression only matters when it’s political expression, and even then, only when it fits his narrow view of acceptability. This is evidenced by the recent mass takedowns of both QAnon groups and anarchists on Facebook.

What I find particularly problematic about his view and Facebook’s policies is that he tends towards “both sides-ism”: that is, if Facebook removes a dangerous conspiracy group like QAnon, they seem to feel the need to remove leftist groups to make sure that “both sides” are treated equally…even when the alleged transgressions of “both sides” couldn’t be more different.

Finally, unlike Zuckerberg’s, my view of free expression is not tied in any way to profit and cannot be influenced by the size of my user base.

Ten years ago, many people thought the internet would strengthen freedom and democracy movements around the globe. Since then, many of these hopes have dissipated. What drives your enthusiasm for the internet today?

I’m very driven by my own experiences online, which have been both incredible and awful. On the one hand, the internet has connected me to friends, project collaborators, political allies – and even vital support groups for a chronic illness that I have. On the other hand – like most women who spend any time on social media – I’ve experienced horrible harassment over the years, and even death threats.

Still, while I see flaws in the architecture of the internet and the platforms that inhabit it, I cannot discount the incredible things it’s brought me and others. I’ve spoken to, for example, transgender individuals who say that they would not have known they were trans were it not for the groups they found online. I’ve spoken to people who said that someone they met online literally saved their life, either from bringing them back from the brink of suicide or by providing them with information. And of course, there are so many people living under authoritarian rule, or without easy access to a diverse array of books or a solid education who have benefited from the information that the internet enables them to access.

It is for these reasons and I’m sure many more that I remain passionate about ensuring that the internet remains free and open – and accessible – to all.

At this year’s M100, we want to set the course for a modern media policy. Currently, where do you see the greatest need for action that will ensure we still have a pluralistic, independent and resilient fourth estate in 10 years’ time?

We need independent funding for local and niche media, first and foremost. Conglomerate-owned media can never be truly free media. We need to start teaching media literacy from the very first year of school. But – and I see this as dire – we also need to decouple media from social media. Facebook has done nearly as much damage to the media ecosystem through incentivization schemes and in their use of recommendation algorithms as Rupert Murdoch has by buying up competitors. Let’s go back to the burgeoning online media ecosystem that we had before Facebook and start from there. It’s never too late.