Coming soon: a religious struggle for control of the internet?
“We only have one message for those who seek to push hate, division, and violence: You have no place on our platforms. You have no home here.”
That was the message of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Inc., in a recent address to the Anti-Defamation League. And that would be fine—if we could all agree on what constitutes the promotion of “hate, division, and violence.” But we can’t.
There are already laws on the books against inciting violence. But “hatred” and “division” are more difficult concepts to define. If I say that I “hate” telemarketing calls, should I be deprived of my iPhone? When I back one political party (or one football team) over another, aren’t I encouraging “division” of a sort? What sort of strong opinions are acceptable? Where do we draw the lines?
Cook has his own very distinct ideas about how society should be organized. In 2014, in announcing to the world that he is homosexual, he concluded an editorial for Bloomberg Business by saying: “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”
So justice, as understood by Cook, requires acceptance of homosexuality. And injustice, moralists generally agree, is a cause of violence. Does it follow, then, that unwillingness to accept homosexuality is a cause of violence? And thus that anyone who does not accept homosexuality should be barred from Apple platforms?
Cook told the ADL that corporate leaders should be “clear on moral questions like these. “At Apple, we are not afraid to say that our values drive our curation decisions.” Realistically speaking, Cook and Apple don’t have to be afraid, because in the social context of Silicon Valley their moral judgments are unquestioned. Nobody is threatening to ban them from social media.
But Cook is threatening to ban others from the internet (or at least that substantial part of the cyberverse currently controlled by Apple), and he is encouraging other corporate leaders to do likewise.
You might be tempted to think that Cook would ban religious activists from the electronic media. But journalist John O’Sullivan sees the problem quite differently. O’Sullivan, who was chief speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher (and, before that, my boss at the quarterly Policy Review), makes a convincing argument that Cook himself is a religious activist—albeit of a sort we don’t ordinarily recognize.
Cook argues for restrictions on internet use, based on moral principles that he assumes his audience will accept. He does not attempt to justify those principles; in his view they stand by themselves. In that sense they might be described as religious principles, O’Sullivan reasons, and so: “Tim Cook seems to be suggesting that the internet should be censored on explicitly religious criteria.”
In other words, Cook is using one set of religious criteria to provide the rationale for the suppression of opposing religious beliefs. Most Americans today perceive no major threats from Cook’s secular humanism, so there is no strong reaction against his proposal for moral censorship. But imagine the reaction if, say, a Muslim internet executive announced plans to block expressions of dissent from Islamic law.
For now you’re in no danger of being blocked as long as your religious principles do not collide with those of Apple. But if they do—or rather, when they do—be prepared.
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