Evan Greer is many things: A musician, an activist for LGBTQ issues, the Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, and a true believer in the free and open internet. Evan is a longtime friend of EFF, and it was great to chat with her about the state of free expression, and what we should be doing to protect the internet for future activism.
Among the many topics we discussed was the tension that often arises between justice-oriented work and free expression activism, and how policies that promote censorship—no matter how well-intentioned—have historically benefited the powerful and harmed vulnerable or marginalized communities. This is something that we think about a lot in our work at EFF. Whether we’re talking about policies intended to curb online extremism or those meant to prevent sex trafficking, it’s important that we look at the potential collateral damage that will inevitably occur. In this interview, Evan talks about what we as free expression activists should do to get at that tension and find solutions that work for everyone in society.
We also talked about something near and dear to both of us: The power that the Internet still has to connect people across borders, and to allow disparate groups to mobilize. We’ll hear from Evan about what the Internet has meant for her music and activism, and what we need to do to protect it for those who come next.
Jillian C. York: What does free speech mean to you?
To me, it’s about the ability to challenge authority and power and establish norms. One of the things I always try to remind people now who are pushing for more regulation of speech, censorship, control over the flow of information is how rapidly norms can change and how recently in our history it was considered a norm for homosexuality to be criminalized or stigmatized.
For me it’s about recognizing that ideas currently seen as fringe or controversial may be seen as totally mainstream in even a matter of decades. And if we prevent people from saying those things out loud because we don’t like them right now or because we think they’re controversial then we’re actually freezing society as a whole to progress. And so I think, to me, it’s the most fundamental issue of tension between authoritarian structures and institutions that, almost universally, tend to trend toward the status quo. Institutions have, sort of built into their DNA, the [desire] to continue to exist. And to do that, the institution needs to maintain or replicate the conditions in which it rose to power, whether that institution is a government, a company, a religious group, or even a popular subculture. And so, to me, free speech or expression is about the ability to challenge those accepted norms and institutionally-enforced norms toward building a better society where we can build norms based in people’s human need rather than just based on momentum or status quo.
York: Absolutely. I think what you said about the fact that ideas currently seen as fringe may become mainstream...the reverse may be true as well. So what would you say right now to the more progressive people that aren’t so keen on this idea of free speech?
I think it’s super important to look through history. I think Cindy Cohn had an op-ed in Wired that summarized this in a way that I’ve been dancing around...I think that if you just look throughout history, even going back to the times of kings, it’s pretty easy to draw a correlation that censorship, largely, has always benefited those in power at the expense of those who do not have power. And even when [censorship has] been explicitly marketed as, or genuinely intended to benefit marginalized people and communities and voices, in the end, the net effect always seems to be that it reinforces the status quo and props up existing power structures. And if those power structures are broken or unjust, then more censorship—even if it’s intended to help the people being hurt by those power structures—largely ends up codifying those power structures and exacerbating discrimination and injustice, and takes away one of the most powerful tools we have to disrupt, or undermine, or overthrow those power structures.
I think it’s super important too for people to look at the edges. We’ve also made a lot of progress [recently]. Ideas that were fringe not that long ago are becoming mainstream, and the opposite is also true. And that leads folks, I think, to believe that fringe ideas are bad ideas. But it’s important to remember that, on a concrete level, anyone who’s done support for US-held political prisoners is acutely aware of the ways the US government can dictate things as simple as how, if you express support for an organization not based in the US, it can land you in prison. Or how payment processors have kicked off people who are doing political prisoner organizing, or organizing to support activists on the ground in Palestine, or in other places where the US government has an imperial interest in preventing money from flowing.
And so it’s easy to look around and not see mainstream or larger organizations that represent marginalized communities being hurt by these policies, but if you look to the fringes, there’s already this long, documented history of harm.
There’s also a logical fallacy here: The argument goes that these big centralized platforms are already doing a terrible job of moderating content; therefore they should moderate more. I just don’t understand that. I think we can and should push them to do better with the moderation practices that they have, and to be more transparent about them so we can hold them accountable and show where they’re falling short. But I don’t get jumping to “let’s do more of the thing they’re doing a bad job at” when we haven’t even fixed the fact that they’re doing a bad job of it, and I think most of us agree that we’re not sure they can ever do a good job of it.
York: You know that I agree with this. So let me take this in a bit of a different direction and ask: Whether there’s a rise in hate speech, or an amplification of it, if we don’t see content moderation as the solution or at least the only solution, what do you believe we should do to counter it?
I think this is the fundamental question and I think it’s super important that those of us who fiercely believe in defending free expression ask ourselves this question, because it’s not acceptable at this point to be like “yeah, white supremacy on the internet is a problem, but is it really that big of a problem?” That’s not okay. It’s really that big of a problem, and it needs to be fought and addressed.
I think your question of whether there’s more of it or it’s just being amplified is a valid question to ask, but in the end, the net effect is the same. This corrosive ideology that’s harmful to human society and leads to actual acts of violence needs to be fought at every turn. I’m kind of old school about it, I’m more about punching Nazis than I am about getting [corporations] to censor them.
I think we need the internet, and we need an open Internet, in order to mobilize and organize against the systems and structures and underlying ideologies that lead to all of this. I think it’s super important too that we zoom out and think about this in a pretty critical way. I think if you ask yourself “Which is doing more harm to society: The prison-industrial complex, or a few pretty loud white supremacists on the Internet?” [you’ll see that] the prison-industrial complex as whole—which is an authoritarian white supremacist structure built into our society and largely accepted—is just in terms of numbers committing far more atrocities than these high-profile assholes on the Internet, but we’re spending tremendous amounts of time and energy dealing with them.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be dealing with them but we should think about what we really want to do and how we want to organize. I think that if the solution that we come up with to deal with those assholes on the internet kneecaps our ability to eventually overthrow and dismantle the prison-industrial complex, are we actually creating a net benefit for society and for the people most affected by this structural oppression? How do we address the underlying income inequality and gross lack of basic human rights and dignity that a huge number of people in [the US] and around the world have that fuels so much of this online nonsense?
Call me a radical, but I like the look at problems at their roots. We’ve seen this with respect to [media policy] over time, like video games are the culprit for school shootings or encryption is making people do bad things. We’ve smacked down these arguments again and again, but here we are again. Do we want to spend all of our time and energy trying to deal with the speech itself, or addressing the underlying systems of oppression that are actually doing the harm and that can only be confronted with meaningful, deep grassroots organizing and community building, and by listening to the people who are being most affected, and to the people at the fringes whose voices are most likely to be silenced by any scheme that we come up with to deal with a relatively small number of destructive and dangerous assholes who are sort of ruining the party for everyone on the Internet.
York: It’s funny, that reminds me of my conversation with Asta Helgadottir, who spoke about how the amount of money that goes toward copyright enforcement is so much bigger than that which goes toward countering child sexual abuse imagery.
Yeah, I can see that. It’s also really important that we as free speech defenders can’t be the party of do-nothing. We can’t just be like “yeah it’s working fine the way it is, just leave it alone” because it’s not working fine the way it is. We as Fight for the Future and me personally have been kicking around different possibilities, policy solutions—but short of fixing the underlying problems, I don’t think that anything solves the problem of hate speech on the Internet. There were always be people who use the Internet to amplify what they’re doing, and the internet will always amplify the mainstream. You can be a Republican politician basically calling for policies that amount to genocide and you’re not going to get wrapped up in Facebook’s hate speech algorithm because you’re using all the right words. That’s just another example of how these policies ethically fail.
But beyond that, there are other things worth looking at. The structural thing, in terms of the internet itself, and speech, is centralization. And so finding policies that address the fact that there are now basically three websites that matter where you can speak and be heard, and these websites control those inordinate amount of speech and people’s ability to hear it...that’s what creates the problem that makes these questions—like “should we ban Alex Jones?”—hard to answer. If there were twenty platforms, that becomes a pretty easy question. But the weight of those decisions is so much greater when there are so few platforms or places where people can speak, and where having your own website doesn’t matter anymore when it can’t be shared on those three platforms.
That’s the underlying problem, and so we should look at policies that address that. Antitrust is interesting to look at, but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet that’s going to solve all of this. I think algorithmic transparency, or moderation transparency is another one—Facebook should make it easy for us, or for journalists, to really get a sense of what they’re taking down and how they’re making those decisions, so we can see the collateral damage that’s happening and hold them accountable to make sure they’re enforcing their existing policies fairly. It doesn’t involve taking down more speech, it means figuring out what they’re taking down now before we ask them to take down more.
And then another thing that I’ve been toying with, and I’m not totally sure about—it’s almost in the realm of Twitter banning political ads—is a temporary moratorium on algorithmic amplification entirely. There’s a huge difference between “anyone can say what they want” and “anyone can say what they want and Facebook is going to put its thumb on the scale and amplify certain types of speech that it knows will generate controversy and clicks and comments” and that basically creates an incentive to amplify some of the worst kinds of speech. Or on YouTube, where a kid starts watching a video about gaming, and then three videos later is being recommended white supremacist content. There’s a big difference between that and letting things go viral—like the internet used to be. I’m not going to pretend awful things don’t go viral, but it’s different from Facebook intentionally weighting the scales and pushing content that it knows is hateful but that makes it money.
I think that’s an interesting thing to look at: How much of the way we’re seeing the conversation being distorted right now is because of that amplification or because there’s an uptick in the number of assholes who believe in this ideology.
So I’m not sure about it, but the decisions we’re making about content moderation right now are arguably some of the most important decisions that humans are making right now, period, and they’re going to shape our civilization, so we need to make these decisions with that level of seriousness and thinking critically while we do it, and not just doing it on the news cycle or based on partisan winds or which way they’re blowing.
York: Absolutely—Okay, let me change directions and ask you my favorite question. Who’s your free speech hero?
I’d have to say Chelsea Manning. First of all, because she’s continuing to suffer at the hands of the US government for blowing the whistle and speaking out and fighting for what she believes in, but also because the conversations we’ve had over the years while she was incarcerated were so instrumental in me shaping my thoughts on this. She’s such a critical thinker and someone who’s directly experienced the ways in which government crackdowns on expression can go so horribly wrong. And so she has a very smart analysis on this. I really value our friendship and the ways she thinks about these issues and has acted on them.
York: I think that’s a great answer, and you’re not the only one who’s named her. She’s a hero for so many of us. Okay, so the one other thing I want to ask is to pull in the fact that you’re a musician and ask: Is there anything from that background that has inspired your work?
There’s two angles there that are really interesting. Just in general, my life as an independent musician in the early days of the Internet shaped why I care about this, and why I think it’s so crucial to defend a free and open internet.
And for me as a trans, independent artist who never had a record label and was writing songs about overthrowing capitalism and being queer, I was never going to find mainstream success in a world where the gatekeepers of the musical community were executives and mostly white male writers for Rolling Stone (although even that has shifted over the past decades).
So me and some of my compatriots were some of the first artists to put our music online for free download. We were putting our music on Archive.org before Napster was a thing. I instantly saw the huge potential of it. I’d show up at a show in Prague where I don’t speak the language and there are like, 200 punk kids who know all the words of my songs. I’d never been there or sold a CD in that area, but the Internet existed, and people were able to find this music they connected with and share it, and instantly, it felt like this is the most powerful force I’d ever seen for lifting up the voices that are so often left out of the conversation in our society, and I’ve never lost sight of that. More and more we see the downsides of it too, the ways in which it can be used to silence people and amplify existing forces of oppression but...I still believe in the Internet, and I still believe that it’s a net positive force for society, and that the fights we have over policy that surround it are so essential because of that revolutionary and transformative power that it still holds, even with all of the downsides.
But also, having kind of an understanding of the ways that people are used as pawns in policy. For example, I’m a member of BMI, I get their emails, and they’re constantly preying on the fears of artists and on our self-esteem and feelings of being screwed over by an unscrupulous industry and using that to convince people that copyright maximalist policies are awesome and what is needed to protect individual artists and creators when you and I both know that’s not true and in fact those policies largely line the pockets of executives and tech companies that are now the new gatekeepers of the music industry.
To me, that’s informed the way I think about all of these issues. I’m acutely aware of how policies that claim to do one thing can easily be used to do something much more nefarious. I think with copyright, that’s just such a clear example where none of these policies would have benefited me as an independent artist. That understanding has shaped the way I think about these things more broadly and always makes me question them, even when something is well-intentioned. There are just always ways they can backfire, and when they do, it hurts the weakest at the benefit of the most powerful.