Alex's Agenda

We must fight back against Silicon Valley’s cultural imperialism

By Alex Wood 17 February 2016
Image: iStock/stray_cat

Alex reports on one issue we can't afford to ignore.

Alex’s Agenda is the weekly column from the front-lines of the future by The Memo’s Editor in Chief, Alex Wood.

Lately, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. One that risks us losing the internet as we know it.

Across the world, our personal photos are disappearing. They’re disappearing because according to services like Facebook and Instagram, they’re inappropriate. Their crime? These images show female nipples.

Nipples might be offensive to some. But when did these online platforms become the decision makers when it comes to our freedom of expression?

The real villain

Who gets to decide that one image is sexualised and another is art? What about when a cancer patient’s image of the rash on her nipple which led to her diagnosis, was censored? She shared to raise awareness of the symptoms of breast cancer, but Facebook buried it. How did we get to a point where one company’s prudish, American views on nudity take precedence over our values?

The real criminal here is Silicon Valley. Cultural imperialism is happening right in front of our eyes.

You will also find #boobs banned on Instagram, along with hundreds of other hashtags that have quietly disappeared over the last few years. While we’ve all been busy uploading selfies of ourselves, Instagram’s hidden millions of images that it deems inappropriate from view.
Worse still, Instagram’s policies are inconsistent at best. #Boobs may be banned, but #boobz are back on the menu.

And the problem stretches far beyond sexual content, seemingly innocent terms like #curvy have also had the chop, only to be reinstated following a public outcry from body image campaigners.

Death of the free press

Services like Facebook and Instagram are private businesses that also have a responsibility to protect their younger users from inappropriate content. We play by their rules, but when did the rules change?

The traditional media is under threat too. Viz magazine, the British parody comic has become the latest victim of Facebook’s cultural crusade. This week the title’s popular Facebook page was deleted this week without warning or explanation.

Ian Westwood, group managing director at parent Dennis Publishing told the Guardian:

“We have had that Facebook page for five years. We have had correspondence with them before about stuff they haven’t liked and we’ve taken it down. This time they have just blocked the page and won’t tell us what we’ve violated. We can appeal, but we don’t know what we would be appealing about, we put up a significant number of posts from the print brand to social media each day.

The end of the open internet

Controlling what we see inside Facebook’s walled garden is just the tip of the iceberg. In India, a heated dispute is taking place over, the social media giant’s aggressive plan to “give” free internet to millions in the developing world.

Dressed up as a non-profit, this latest move is, as Computer World rightly puts it, “a business development group within Facebook aimed at increasing Facebook’s users and revenue”.

The big catch here is what’s called net neutrality. While the internet connection may be free of charge, Facebook gets to decide the web you get to see. The very notion of the open internet that we know and love is being denied to millions, and the Indian government is rightly furious. If Facebook’s lobbying is successful, millions will only see one view of the world. A censored, nipple-free view that’s controlled by one private company on the other side of the world.

Now social media has become such a de facto part of the fabric of our everyday lives, who should say in what is and isn’t acceptable? Cultures are different around the world. In some countries women are rightly free to bare their chests if they want to and in others satire is a key part of the free press. We cannot allow an elite to decide a one-size-fits-all approach that affects us all.

Our culture and our right to free speech is under threat. We may be more connected than ever before, but who gets to decide what is and isn’t fit for consumption? This is cultural imperialism and it cannot be allowed to continue.

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