On August 18, statistics professor and researcher Salil Mehta discovered his Google account had been shut down. Not only did he lose access to his email, but his popular blog Statistical Ideas was inaccessible -- right after The New York Times had linked to it, directing a stream of readers his way. Google's automated message told Mehta that he had violated the Terms of Service, but didn't specify how and offered little recourse.
The incident came soon after Google fired software engineer James Damore for his outspoken views on diversity in the tech industry. In the tense atmosphere, Mehta assumed that writing he had done about electoral politics was the cause. "Apparently if you show [p]robability work like Hillary having lower election odds, then this is new definition of hate speech," he tweeted in frustration. Mehta's plight went semi-viral after Ricardo Blanco, a Tesla communications manager and himself a former Google executive, signal-boosted Mehta's complaint, as did bombastic economics author Nicholas Nassim Taleb.
Like Damore, who saw himself as merely presenting scientific data showing differences between populations, Mehta did not think of himself as an ideological bomb-thrower. He told ZeroHedge, "I am not promoting any specific viewpoint. I teach probability math and that's it."
Mehta was lucky. The public outcry and press attention prompted Google to manually review his case. A Google spokesperson told Inc. that Mehta mistakenly marked some of his own email as spam, which confused the algorithm and triggered the shutdown. By August 21, the account had been fully restored.
It could have turned out differently. Without his impressive credentials and far-reaching network, Mehta never would have found out why his Google account was shut down. He wouldn't have been able to access his correspondence or restore his blog, which he says has been read by the likes of Elon Musk and Warren Buffett.
After regaining access to his blog, Mehta published an out-of-character post. Instead of talking about math, Mehta discussed the societal danger posed by artificial intelligence. He pointed out that algorithms constructed by ideologically homogenous groups will reflect that homogeneity -- an argument that is common among technology critics and activists of all political persuasions.
"Risk-taking off the backs of billions of citizens, an increasingly unstable segment of whom are fuming at the moment," Mehta called the practice.
Mehta's experience with Google illustrates just how little some of us trust our digital gatekeepers. Anyone who is right of center -- or otherwise holds views that don't jibe with the dominant Silicon Valley paradigm -- can't help but feel antsy in 2017. This anxiety exploded into public view last year after Facebook was rumored to be suppressing conservative articles in its "Trending Topics" module. People are worried about being no-platformed; about losing their ability to advocate for themselves and their communities.
"Despite their participatory rhetoric," media critic John Herrmann wrote in The New York Times, "social platforms are closer to authoritarian spaces than democratic ones." Users have no ability to vote in new CEOs, and the shareholders who do are more concerned with earnings and dividends than free speech rights. Your whole life could be tied up in an account, and then a fluke mistake could get you banned. There would be nearly nothing you could do about it. Unless you're prominent enough for the media to care, you'll be hard-pressed to get human eyes on your case.
Tech companies that offer free consumer products get away with promising very little to their users. Due process is not part of the deal. Platforms like Google and Facebook go through the rigmarole of establishing official policies, but they can break them arbitrarily whenever they want. The backend infrastructure of the internet, made up of hosting companies and DNS registrars, is also governed by what boils down to whim.
Sometimes the affectation is broken. Cloudflare's CEO Matthew Prince caused a stir when he reversed the company's policy of content neutrality in order to ax a neo-Nazi site. In a sorry-not-sorry email to Cloudflare staff, Prince wrote, "Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the internet."
To his credit, Prince recognized his exercise of power as problematic and attempted to use it as a teachable moment. "Firing a Nazi customer gets you glowing notes from around the world, thanking you for standing up to hate," he subsequently noted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "But a week later, I continue to worry about this power and the potential precedent being set. The reality of today's internet is that if you are publishing anything even remotely controversial, your site will get cyber-attacked. Without a massive global network similar to Cloudflare's, it is nearly impossible to withstand the barrage."
Prince added, "The upshot is that a few private companies have effectively become the gatekeepers to the public square -- the blogs and social media that serve as today's soapboxes and pamphlets. If a handful of tech executives decide to block you from their services, your content effectively can't be on the internet."
Conservative writer David French critiqued Prince's decision in National Review, and came to the same conclusion:
"This was an ominous development for free speech -- and not because there is anything at all valuable about The Daily Stormer's message. It's an evil site. Its message is vile. Instead, The Daily Stormer's demise is a reminder that a few major corporations now have far more power than the government to regulate and restrict free speech, and they're hardly neutral or unbiased actors. They have a point of view, and they're under immense pressure to use that point of view to influence public debate."
Everyone is on edge. Even rote decisions made by algorithms -- like the one that booted Salil Mehta from his Google account -- are easy to interpret as ideology-driven malice. In most cases, users are disenfranchised to the extent that they'll never find out either way.