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Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism

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How Google, Facebook and Amazon threaten our Democracy

What is the impact of surveillance capitalism on our right to free speech? The Internet once promised to be a place of extraordinary freedom beyond the control of money or politics, but today corporations and platforms exercise more control over our ability to access information and share knowledge to a greater extent than any state. From the online calls to arms in the thick of the Arab Spring to the contemporary front line of misinformation, Jillian York charts the war over our digital rights. She looks at both how the big corporations have become unaccountable censors, and the devastating impact it has had on those who have been censored.

In Silicon Values, leading campaigner Jillian York, looks at how our rights have become increasingly undermined by the major corporations desire to harvest our personal data and turn it into profit. She also looks at how governments have used the same technology to monitor citizens and threatened our ability to communicate. As a result our daily lives, and private thoughts, are being policed in an unprecedented manner. Who decides the difference between political debate and hate speech? How does this impact on our identity, our ability to create communities and to protest? Who regulates the censors? In response to this threat to our democracy, York proposes a user-powered movement against the platforms that demands change and a new form of ownership over our own data.

288 pages, Kindle Edition

First published March 2, 2021

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About the author

Jillian York

6 books51 followers
Jillian C. York is a writer whose work has been published in a number of publications, including The New York Times, Motherboard, The Washington Post, Die Zeit, The Conversationalist, and Buzzfeed.

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Displaying 1 - 27 of 27 reviews
Profile Image for Dave.
3,107 reviews353 followers
December 14, 2020
At times “ Silicon Values” is an interesting treatise on the how power has become concentrated in the hands of a few Silicon Valley elites and how these companies have ended up working with governments around the world to censor opinion and information. Unfortunately, the treatise later descends into a series of ad hominem attacks on Israel (equating Zionism with Marxism, for example) and a lot of inside chatter about events in Libya and Egypt minus context. If you are looking for a straightforward analysis of Big Tech and censorship, this book simply loses its focus.
Profile Image for Руслан.
Author 2 books31 followers
December 24, 2020
This will be difficult to read for many. I can assume that there will be criticism about the political part of the book, but I understand why Jillian York put these examples. Yes, censorship, politics, geopolitics, economic interests are often intertwined, and the book shows how this is reflected. I know the author from her time in Global Voices and I can say that she is one of the few experts in the field who know exactly what they are talking about. The book is worth reading, even if you disagree with some of the theses.
Profile Image for Cav.
703 reviews101 followers
April 7, 2021
Silicon Values fields a timely subject matter, but sadly, Jillian York's telling of this story left much to be desired for me...

Author Jillian C. York is a writer whose work has been published in a number of publications, including The New York Times, Motherboard, The Washington Post, Die Zeit, The Conversationalist, and Buzzfeed.

Jillian York:

For a book about social media, the internet and free speech, there was an overwhelming torrent of superfluous, hyper-partisan leftist speech, jargon and rhetoric in here. Early alarm bells triggered for me when York repeatedly refers to black people only as "marginalized", and makes many snide remarks about white men, and men in general. She also manages to include many disparaging remarks about Israel somehow, as well as drops many other irrelevant snark little partisan asides throughout the book.
York describes the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in a politically charged manner; calling the shooting of Martin a "particular act of brutality". "...another young unarmed Black man named Michael Brown was killed by a police officer" is how she describes the death of Michael Brown.

Aside from both of the above statements being overtly dishonest and slippery appeals to emotion, I'm not sure why they (or the many comments about "white men") were even included in this book in the first place... They were not at all relevant to the broader story here. Indeed, the addition of ridiculous partisan rhetoric like this is usually a good barometer to the degree of the author's ideological possession.
I don't know why authors who are naked partisans think others will appreciate their shit political takes being inserted where they are not even relevant. Absolutely terrible...

There is a somewhat ridiculous chapter about the efforts to censor sex, sex workers and pornography from social media sites. She seemingly can't wrap her head around why platforms that are used by children would want to censor those things. LMAO. Ok, then...
She then laments: "I cannot help but think about what was lost when the Nazis seized power, decimating the freedoms that had flourished in the Weimar Republic..." The naive reader might want to do some reading on the excesses of Weimar Germany to get an appreciation of what was "lost": widespread sexual promiscuity, prostitution (including child prostitution), books about pedophilia and bestiality, drug abuse, and general lax and deviant moral standards were all commonplace in Weimar Germany. Whether the destruction of these things constitutes a "loss" I guess depends on your moral compass...
York also assumes that the above qualities would of course be objectively "good" for the long-term health and prosperity of any society. Ridiculous "reasoning".
Also not realized by the author, apparently, is that the very same culture described above produced a strong backlash; contributing to a right-wing strongman like Adolph Hitler coming to power in the first place.

York repeatedly mentions the rise of right-wing extremism and the "far-right" here, but doesn't once mention the danger of the rise of self-described Communists, Anarchists, and other assorted far-leftist groups who hold staunchly anti-Western, anti-American and anti-police sentiments, or the ~6+ months of rioting, burning, looting and associated murders by those same groups, that destroyed large swaths of numerous American cities in the summer of 2020.
She dismisses the politically motivated censorship of conservative voices as no more than an irrelevant fairy tale, concocted by those on the "far-right". Imagine being so oblivious...

The book started off OK, but then got progressively worse as it went; culminating in a full-court press of screeching leftist nonsense in the conclusion. I don't honestly know how this book got published without the editors reigning her in. They probably should have, as a lot of the partisan rhetoric she spews here was completely unrelated to the broader topic of the book.

Finally; despite having extremely interesting subject matter to work with here, York's writing didn't bring this story to the reader in either an engaging or enjoyable fashion, IMHO.
The addition of her irrelevant and unnecessary political rhetoric aside, York did not do this timely and important story proper justice. Maybe this was a subjective thing, but I didn't even like the overall style this book is written with. I'm not sure how she's managed to land so many writing gigs, because the writing here was not very good.
Too bad, as I was excited to start this one...

I rarely ever rate a book 1 star, but this one was *so* bad, that I feel it is deserving of just that. Thankfully, it was not any longer, or I would have put it down.
Remind me to never read any more books, articles, or other writing by this author ever again.
Profile Image for Tino.
233 reviews2 followers
July 29, 2023
As is often the case the premise and subject is interesting but execution was flawed. Most of the book felt repetitive as if York realized halfway through she didn’t have that much to say after all. 2 stars.
Profile Image for Chris Boutté.
Author 8 books163 followers
April 2, 2021
I'm always reluctant to read books about criticisms of social media platforms because it's an extremely important topic, but many authors don't do the topic justice. I've read quite a few books that seem to drag on and not really make strong arguments, but Jillian York did an amazing job with this book. She has years of experience in activism and holding social media companies accountable, and she's also an amazing story teller. I'm not as familiar with global issues as I'd like to be, so sometimes the stories are confusing, but Jillian was able to explain them in a comprehensive way that I could understand. 

This book dives into a variety of topics that I hadn't even thought of. Sure, we often talk about how addictive social media is or how the platforms use our data, but this book has a variety of new angles. It discusses how governments manipulate the platforms to silence activists, how sex workers are oppressed on the platforms, and much more. I think my favorite thing about Jillian's writing is that she addresses that these are difficult, nuanced subjects that need a lot of conversation. For example, she discusses hate speech and censorship and how her views of the topics have evolved over the years. If nothing else, Silicon Values will make you more aware and get you thinking about these topics in a new way.
Profile Image for Apostolos Kritikos.
16 reviews3 followers
October 6, 2021
Amazing read (or rather listen since I consumed it in audio-book format).

Jillian manages to capture all the key concerning issues of social media and big tech while reminding us the history of the web from the early days till the corona era (aka lockdowns era). The audiobook was easy to listen (kudos at Megan Tusing, the narrator) and I absolutely recommended as a companion to your walking or running routine.
Profile Image for Dinh Hong.
233 reviews4 followers
February 27, 2022
more than a decade to collect data, Jillian made a point of questioning how freedom of speech of our current and future goes. So many policemen now coming from not only government but also especially now from the silicon companies of social and internet networks. Bias view and missed the point of looking at the where money goes and influence to these Silicon companies besides the government, she just can stop at questioning.
Profile Image for Stephen Harrison.
23 reviews3 followers
March 28, 2021
I enjoyed Jillian C. York's "Silicon Values," which is filled with in-depth reporting about how major tech platforms are struggling with content moderation and censorship. York's coverage is especially good when it comes to the challenges in the Middle East, exposing how Silicon Valley has allied itself with the powers-that-be to benefit the corporate bottom line even at the cost at repressing free expression. Because York has been covering content moderation for so long, she was able to include several historical examples that reveal how in the "early days" social media companies were often making up the rules on an ad hoc basis. For example, she shares stories of interacting with young Facebook employees and how the early results were often decided by "who you knew" at the company. I was particularly moved by the examples of how content moderation is deleting the footage that we have of war crimes and could lead to us having these massive historical gaps. There were a few points in the book where I wished York could include more characterizing details about the leaders in Silicon Valley, like Nicole Wong who was "the Decider" as Google's vice president and deputy general counsel. But most of all, I was impressed by how many critical issues York was able to weave into the book, including the recent Coronavirus response by Silicon Value companies, and how York consistently and passionately argued the case in favor of free expression over censorship.
Profile Image for Venky.
961 reviews348 followers
January 4, 2021
Following closely in the footsteps of Rebecca Mackinnon and Shoshana Zuboff, Jillian York in her interesting, upcoming and provocative work, “Silicon Values”, distills the various anomalies involved in “content moderation” that is practiced (or abdicated) by the giants of technology such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Ms. York brings to bear her formidable experience with and exposure to content moderation and platform intricacies in alluding to various hits and misses that both distinguish and tarnish Big Tech. A writing style that is bereft of pretentiousness and hesitancy makes Silicon Values a riveting read.

Ms. York bemoans the fact that the most aspired for and valued attribute, in the form of freedom of speech is controlled and curbed by a handful of gargantuan personalities striding the very pinnacle of Big Tech and whose actions are influenced by and beholden to powerful political connections, financial prospects and influential lobbying. Tweets and posts of influential and award winning activists such as Wael Abbas, that not just expose, but also educate the people about police brutality and other abuses in Egypt, are thus take down by the social media sites after succumbing to intense ‘back room’ pressure exerted by either the concerned Government or people wielding power. These actions resorted to by the social media sites go against the very grain of freedom of expression, a fundamental right that has been recognised from time immemorial. As Ms. York educates her readers, isegoria, a concept that allowed all male citizens in Athens, to address the democratic assembly irrespective of the fact as to whether such citizens were rich or poor, was given total prominence. The only lacuna here being the disservice meted out to women.

Ms. York although chastising all the social media sites, reserves her ire for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company has content moderation staff spread across three tiers. The staff at the lowest level, namely Tier 3, have a thankless task. They are forced to spend entire days viewing gruesome imagery and making instantaneous decisions to take down or leave in place a post. With a meagre paycheck totaling US$28,800 a day and as pitiful as US$6 a day in India, these employees receive negligible to no training not to mention an absolute lack of mental health support. This has the unfortunate consequence of posts of import and gravity being mistakenly taken down.

In order to minimize such acts and to preserve the basic ethos of human rights across the globe, the Global Network Initiative (“GNI”) was incorporated. Yahoo!, along with Google and Microsoft were the founding members and a bevy of NGOs, academic institutions and shareholder groups joined the organisation. However, as Ms. York illustrates, a reliance on a multi-stakeholder model has rendered GNI, more or less, ineffective. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, then joined together to form the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (“GIFCT”). The objective of GIFCT was “disrupting terrorist abuse of members’ digital platforms.” Due to a deficiency in the definitions of the word terrorism etc, the work of GIFCT has also left a lot to be desired.

Ms. York also highlights other notable perils of the content moderation evil such as the takedown of posts by sex workers following the promulgations of the SESTA and FOSTA acts by the United States Government. Many of these sex workers who were reliant on their connections formed across the online network for information on client screening and other safety measures found themselves in the lurch. Another area of concern is technology assisted content moderation. Using tools of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Big Tech attempts content moderation, but sometimes with hilarious outcomes. Thus, the residents of the English town of Scunthorpe find their accounts taken down or even refused registration because the word lying between the alphabets S and h represents a common profanity. London’s Horniman Museum found its own spam filters blocking it since the filters perceived “Horniman” as akin to “horny man.” Another problem innate with content moderation is lack of expertise with regional languages/vernacular. Luganda the most widely spoken language in Uganda with more than 8 million users hardly finds content moderation experts, proficient to analyse acceptable and offensive posts.

Similarly, there seem to be divergent standards for allowing and rejecting “hate speech” and exhortations to violence. This is where Ms. York’s book is a huge let down. Her concentration seems to be so fixated only on the misdeeds and misguided philosophies of the extreme right, that a person who is unaware of her stellar credentials might be forgiven for believing her to be an integral part of a cabalistic left wing group. Whether it be waxing eloquent on the consequences of Brandenburg v Ohio decision, the misplaced rants of Donald Trump, or the “Hindutva” extremism in India, Ms. York seems to harbour an obtuse illusion that violence is the sole preserve of the right. Hence there is no reference to the merciless and systematic killing (and not just persecution) of the minorities in Pakistan, the planned elimination of right wing campaigners by the Left Government in the Indian state of West Bengal and a myriad other relevant scenarios.

On the whole, Silicon Values in an invigorating, insightful and incisive distillation of the surveillance imposed upon free speech by the bastion that is Big Tech in the digital world.

(“Silicon Values” will be released by Verso Books (US) on the 2nd of March 2021)
Profile Image for Anny.
312 reviews26 followers
March 23, 2023
It is a good introduction book on social media censorship. I never really consider censorship that important but this book has made me rethink that.

Currently how we deal with sensitive materials (e.g. pornography, violence) in social media is pretty crude that is the corporation simply delete them. But if you think about it, these are important and valuable materials. For example, child pornography materials, terrorist related materials and the like should be given to the police to be investigated further. Human right violation materials should also be given to the relevant human right organizations. But instead we just delete all of them!

The question of what is acceptable or not is also a pretty dicey question to be handed to twenty something with no training in ethics and related context. Is image of breastfeeding okay? If 'vagina' is always censored how the hell are we supposed to talk about its health aspect and proper sex education?

These issues and a few more others discussed in the book are very important to our society and yet we left it all to the discretion of a few white guy beholden to profit and government than society. Personally, I agree with the author that this need to change.
Profile Image for Patrick Pilz.
579 reviews
December 20, 2020
I just reviewed Silicon Values by Jillian C. York. #SiliconValues #NetGalley

Regulation of speech on the internet is probably one of the topics on every ones mind, latest since the election, rise of OAN and ONAN and a president continuously sharing false and misleading information. Jillian C. York picks up this challenge, but misses to discuss this in the context of our American society, moves the discussion towards other areas of society which are not exactly on the forefront of American minds: the right of sex workers to a LinkedIn profile, classification of terrorist groups and some of the voluntary efforts of social media giants to control what we can see and what not. I think the book has some illuminating aspects to it, but the discussions do not need to be removed so far from our home yard.

The introduction was horrible. Instead of setting the tone of the book and what is there to come, Jillian opens up with a bunch of disclaimer that read so disappointing that I almost stopped reading right there, I am glad that I continued as the book was really well written, and the stories interesting. What I did not like was the samples she picked and what she wrote about.
23 reviews37 followers
July 28, 2022
“I used to believe that platforms should not moderate speech; that they should take a hands-off approach, with very few exceptions. That was naive. I still believe that Silicon Valley shouldn't be the arbiter of what we can say, but the simple fact is that we have entrusted these corporations to do just that, and as such, they must use wisely the responsibility that they have been given.”

This is from the last chapter of the book, and it describes almost perfectly how it was to read it. The first few chapters felt like a full-throated argument against any form of moderation, with deep worries about “shadow banning” and limiting expression. But as the book went on, York’s views became more complex and nuanced.
2 reviews1 follower
July 27, 2021
As a former content moderator I am astonished by Jillian’s level of insight, expertise and pointedness in the subject matter. The structure of the book is systematic in a way that encourages the reader to intellectually engage with some of the biggest dilemmas of our time. Any reader will now understand the magnitude of conflict and risk that big tech inevitably poses to humanity; as well as the urgency to find solutions to nativgate the endless greyzones of internet policy. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Karen.
74 reviews9 followers
March 15, 2021
How do our social media habits can shape democracy? or yet, how can they shape the way we see the world through blindspot in algorithms, slow policy and censorship. York makes a very valid study about the two major social media platforms at the moment (facebook, twitter) and how their policy has changed through the years.

Thank you NetGalley and Verso Books for this arc copy of Silicon Values in exchange of an honest review.
Profile Image for Ivette Yanez.
42 reviews
August 2, 2022
Though at times it feels very academic and dense, I can't deny it's an excellent overview of what the author rightly calls Surveillance Capitalism, encompassing censorship, online moderation, digital life, Internet companies and new business models, etc. At the same time, it's often a personal account of how these topics have evolved over the past 15 years, and the lack of answers that remain. Really worth a read.
Profile Image for Fiona.
788 reviews7 followers
July 11, 2021
Weirdly judge-y. Author seems to think that social media companies ought to be prioritizing disadvantaged people as though she's never heard of capitalism and it is quite clear she has no experience or training in objective journalism. This probably would have worked better as a memoir so that the writer could insert herself even more than she does.
24 reviews
February 6, 2023
I’ll grant York the fact that she has changed and adapted her opinions as time has gone on. However, her chapters on content cartels and nudity were limited in thought, and uninterested in taking into account the very real harms done by extremists. Ultimately, she shows the limitations of free speech absolutism, even when it is advocated by the left. I appreciated the international aspect of the book and her text pushed me to leave my us centric understanding of the tech industry.
Profile Image for Bangs.
9 reviews
May 17, 2021
Absolutely brilliant book that will give you an in-depth view of how corporations currently treat content (and maybe some ideas of how they should instead). Cannot recommend highly enough!
Profile Image for Liz.
662 reviews
June 1, 2021
Useful overview of a range of difficult content moderation issues. It's one point of view, but it's also clear about that.
1 review
July 13, 2021
I did not personally consider this book to be very well researched, and I did not appreciate all of the author's ad hominem attacks against anyone considered conventional.
Profile Image for Micah.
Author 14 books60 followers
June 4, 2021
Jillian York, the longtime director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, has been wrestling with the issues of free speech and content moderation since the rise of social media, and in her valuable new book Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism she shares what she has learned from being on the opposite side of the coin. That is, hers is a well-informed view of how Big Tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube came to dominate public life, but from the vantage point of many of the world’s most vulnerable people: human rights activists and pro-democracy organizers living under dictators, and nonconforming outsiders like sex workers.

Read the rest of my review here https://theconnector.substack.com/p/f...
34 reviews1 follower
August 28, 2022
Interesting book that made me think about the control and power major tech companies have over our life. I was particularly struck with her examples of how social media has helped spark major movements and is potentially pushing American values on nudity onto the people of other countries. It has definitely made me think more deeply about these unelected global leaders and how their systems have become so much more than they were meant to be or could be handled properly.

I thought her writing was all over the place. Particularly with the things she chose to explain and dive more into and those she did not. There were some topics I needed a lot more background on that she only referenced the headline and others I felt she went way to in depth. I guess assuming that everybody would have a basic knowledge of some of the major political events or events that happened on social media (i.e I had never heard of gamergate and needed much more context and background than what she provided).
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