The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we discuss growing concerns over tech accountability, analyze the many complexities of TikTok, and break down the controversy surrounding a Harper’s Magazine letter on free expression and cancel culture.
This week, the big U.S. tech players—including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Zoom, Twitter—all said they would stop processing requests from Hong Kong authorities to use their data, at least temporarily. TikTok has pulled their app from the region altogether. Is this a sign that the companies are going to take a harder line on how they interact with law enforcement or known human rights violators? Or do you think this is just a temporary PR move?
I think it’s at least conditionally a positive move, in that they recognize that transformation—with this national security law putting Hong Kong much more squarely underneath Beijing’s thumb and edict this week—that tech companies that do not comply will have their employees be vulnerable to imprisonment for not turning over data, that this necessitates a pretty wholesale review of how they’re approaching their presence in the Hong Kong market. I think it’s a positive step that they have taken that onboard, and that they’re not simply trying to pretend this is business as usual.
None of these companies, except for TikTok, operate inside China. Many of them have had to-and-fro tussles, like Google going back and forth with the Chinese government, trying to figure out whether there were terms under which they could stay in the market, and really failing to come to a situation they were comfortable with. Years ago, there was a very high-profile case of Yahoo turning over data at the demand of the Beijing government and then the individual Yahoo user being subject to imprisonment, based on evidence that Yahoo had provided. And they don’t want to be in that position of, essentially, incriminating their users. It’s a PR disaster. It runs counter to all the values that they profess to stand for. They’re under a lot of pressure as it is, with the boycott of Facebook now going into its second month.
“I think it’s going to end up being something of a standoff between the companies and Beijing. Is Beijing willing to offer a little bit of wiggle room so that they can continue to operate under terms that are acceptable and not going to provoke mass outcry and put them in the position of landing their users in jail, or not? And are those companies going to have to withdraw from Hong Kong entirely, which would really accelerate the kind of freezing out of Hong Kong from the rest of the world?”
This is sort of a temporary pause. And I think they’re evaluating what this is going to entail going forward, and whether the Beijing government will offer some more flexibility so that the platforms can stay in Hong Kong. Hong Kong changes radically if you cut off all of global social media. It’s an international hub, it’s a very cosmopolitan population, and these platforms have huge user bases in Hong Kong that are very active. You’ve seen a lot of those people going dark, sanitizing their posts, or going through and deleting past Twitter and Facebook posts trying to shield themselves from this government scrutiny that they’re now worried about, under the new law.
I think it’s going to end up being something of a standoff between the companies and Beijing. Is Beijing willing to offer a little bit of wiggle room so that they can continue to operate under terms that are acceptable and not going to provoke mass outcry and put them in the position of landing their users in jail, or not? And are those companies going to have to withdraw from Hong Kong entirely, which would really accelerate the kind of freezing out of Hong Kong from the rest of the world?
Speaking of TikTok, it made some news in the U.S. this week as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to ban the app in the United States. At first glance, it seems like a swipe at free expression, especially because the president has increasingly become a target of derision on the platform. At the same time, we’ve seen the U.S. government make moves to lock out Chinese telecom companies, Huawei being one major example, when they think that it poses a national security threat. Where do you come down?
TikTok is fascinating. It’s a Chinese company; it’s a very successful, private company that is getting ready for an IPO, is very highly valued, has really exploded, and has global usage. This concern that because it’s a Chinese company, if Beijing were to demand all the user data that TikTok has collected they’d be able to get it with no obstacle, has been a concern for a long time. Frankly, it’s a concern that I have. Don’t ask my daughter about this, but she’s not allowed to have TikTok for that reason. I just sort of feel like I don’t want her registered right now with the Chinese government. I’m not ready for that yet.
So, I think there are some legitimate underlying concerns here. This particular step of threatening to kick TikTok out—actually, India has done that. And India had a huge installed user base for TikTok and has just banned the company from the entire country. It’s not an unprecedented step. I think they did it in the midst of a worsening bilateral relationship between Delhi and Beijing. So I think Pompeo is looking at that.
It’s interesting because at the same time, TikTok—which was just this kind of fun-loving platform for dance videos and stuff—has been becoming a lot more political over the last few months. A lot more protest videos. This whole movement that arose on TikTok where you had people signing up for Trump’s rally in Tulsa with no intention of actually attending, but for the goal of taking up tickets and convincing the organizer that they were in for some huge gathering, when the actual numbers disappointed drastically. And that was sort of touted and celebrated as a moment of triumph for Trump’s critics, effectuated via TikTok. I think it was a teacher who sparked the whole thing by making the initial call. So TikTok is playing this more important political role.
“If you just say one or two things, like ‘Don’t punish speech,’ without saying that you recognize the harms of speech, that you are committed to fighting against hateful speech and hate crimes, that you’re determined to be conscientious in the use of language, that you recognize a duty of care that people who have positions of authority and important platforms hold. . . there’s an assumption that you’re missing part of the picture, or your messages are skewed, or you’re leaving out these questions of power relations.”
The company is also considering how to redomicile its headquarters outside of China. They’ve hired an American CEO, and yet their DNA and ownership is fundamentally Chinese. And they’re really kind of coming into some of the difficult dilemmas that that gives rise to, in terms of Beijing’s ultimate control over the company, no matter what the executives say.
I want to end on a letter that made a lot of waves this week in Harper’s Magazine, signed by over 150 celebrities, writers, thinkers, and artists, about threats to free expression. However, critics immediately took aim, saying it showed that the writers had thin skins, or that they were privileged and talking about a “cancel culture” that didn’t affect them, or even were gasps of a loss of relevance of the signatories. Do you think the critics missed the point?
I do think it’s very legitimate to put forward a call for free expression, and an alert to some of the perils of the kind of punitive cast that characterizes what some people call “cancel culture.” I also think it’s true that this is a historic moment of reckoning on issues of inequality, racism, and anti-Black violence, and that all these things are true at the same time.
What I’ve been thinking over the last few weeks and days is that this is why I had to have 20 principles in my book, because you have to say all 20 things. If you just say one or two things, like “Don’t punish speech,” without saying that you recognize the harms of speech, that you are committed to fighting against hateful speech and hate crimes, that you’re determined to be conscientious in the use of language, that you recognize a duty of care that people who have positions of authority and important platforms hold—if you leave out any one of those things, even though the other things may be perfectly valid, there’s an assumption that you’re missing part of the picture, or your messages are skewed, or you’re leaving out these questions of power relations.
“Ultimately, if we’re going to be both a more equitable, inclusive, and just society, as well as a society that sustains robust protections for free speech, we’ve got to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, and to reflect all these values in how we put ourselves forward.”
I think that’s what makes talking about free speech in the present moment so complicated. It’s honestly one of the reasons why I have tried to lay this out, because I do think you have to say all of these things are all really important. It’s a lot to take onboard at any one time, but ultimately, if we’re going to be both a more equitable, inclusive, and just society, as well as a society that sustains robust protections for free speech, we’ve got to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, and to reflect all these values in how we put ourselves forward.
I think that is a bit of what the letter was faulted with. Even though there was a strong statement of support for the protest movement, I think that it maybe moved a bit too quickly onto this question of punishments for speech and didn’t talk enough about the enablers and obstacles to free speech, about who really enjoys free speech in this society, and other important aspects of the picture.
One of the other subplots that became really interesting is the question of who is on the letter and criticism of signatories—not because of the content of the letter, but because they allowed themselves to be seen alongside certain other people. It was like we canceled that other person, so now we’re going to cancel you for being on a letter, alongside the canceled person. And that’s a new level, in a sense.
I think there is something powerful about the fact that the letter attracted what you think of as strange bedfellows, people who are on the opposite sides of issues but who might have a kernel that they could agree on. That’s actually a hopeful thing. Even if you may revile everything else that person stands for, maybe there’s a tiny little stretch of common ground in such a polarized society. I think the idea that you’re pillorying people for allowing themselves to be on a list with certain other people, to me, goes too far, and should be evaluated more on the basis of the content of the letter that these individuals were signing.
We do sign on letters all the time—nonprofits do this, NGOs do this, and oftentimes it’s exactly that. It’s showing the strange bedfellows that give us more credence in the message.
That’s true. To be honest, I don’t think we’ve been asked, nor have we shown the entire list of signatories. Or if we’ve shown it at all, it’s sort of to attract other people. We’ve never had the notion that you’d want to improve, not just the letter itself, but also the list of names of all the other signatories, but I’m sure we will get that request henceforward.
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