PHILADELPHIA, PA — Freedom of expression is among the most important civil liberties enjoyed by members of a free society. By allowing these members to question authority, freedom of expression enables a community to check itself, to make sure that the “ship” is pointed in the right direction and to course-correct if needed. Not only is it vital for maintaining a healthy diversity of views and opinions, but it also allows people—including journalists—to stand in the “public square” and share ideas and information with their fellow citizens.
Over the past year, and particularly over the past several months, we have seen more and more instances of major tech companies suppressing people’s speech through censorship, eroding their ability to express themselves by revoking access to this public square.
For example, mid-October, Twitter and Facebook coordinated a campaign to censor a New York Post article that exposed emails obtained from a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. The two companies took steps to limit the spread of the story by warning users that the article may contain “unsafe” material and locking the Post out of its own Twitter account.
Regardless of whether the article — which thus far has not been debunked, and parts of which have been corroborated — contains truly critical information or not, it was (and may still be) an important and legitimate news story. For Twitter and Facebook to try to shut down the story in the run-up to a major presidential election was grossly irresponsible, and it shows a concerning willingness to silence journalists in the name of “safety.”
During a Senate hearing on censorship involving Facebook, Google and Twitter in late October, it was revealed that Google had been suppressing content from the World Socialist Website in its search results. The revelation backs up a 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation that detailed the use of algorithms by Google to alter users’ search results. It also reconfirms suspicions that the tech giant has been effectively censoring WSWS articles—such as its critical coverage of the New York Times’ 1619 Project—dating as far back as 2017.
While using algorithms to dictate search results may make search engines more efficient and convenient for users, it also makes it much easier to manipulate results so that they suppress certain viewpoints or information. If people who rely heavily on the Internet for news or research (as, I assume, most of us do) are only exposed to select viewpoints and publications, it is far more difficult to determine facts and gain a well-rounded understanding of the world we live in.
In another instance, YouTube announced in December that it would begin removing videos and accounts of users claiming that there was widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election and questioning the results.
It is highly unlikely that the election was stolen, and the lawsuits (pushed by both Donald Trump and his allies) to overturn the results have flopped. However, YouTube’s decision to block this content limits users’ ability to assess the information presented and decide for themselves what they believe, in addition to further entrenching the beliefs of those convinced the election was stolen.
In the United States, free speech is often referenced in tandem with the First Amendment, which guarantees American citizens the right to freedom of religion, expression, assembly and petition by preventing Congress from restricting any one of these actions in public forums. But freedom of speech is more than just a law as defined under the First Amendment; it is a core tenet of liberal philosophy that promotes the right of the individual to access the public square of discourse. It is an important part of individual freedom and is invaluable in ensuring that the groups that hold the most power, be they governments or trillion-dollar industries, cannot control the discourse of their constituents.
A handful of private tech companies hold an ever-growing monopoly over the internet and social media, which have become the new public square in our society; the increasing normalization of political censorship by these organizations is a problem. It’s true that the millions of people who share this public square should not and cannot be forced to listen to the ramblings of any yahoo standing on a soapbox, but to take away someone’s voice for the crime of sharing information that may be politically inconvenient, expressing views that may be controversial, or for simply being wrong only encourages more authoritarian behavior.
One might argue that if someone doesn’t like the speech policies of one social media network or another, they can simply move to another or create their own. This is true, and that is exactly what happened earlier this year. Parler, a social network founded for the purpose of promoting freedom of expression, briefly became the most downloaded app in the country, with users jumping ship from Twitter and Facebook citing claims of censorship following Biden’s presidential victory.
This was short-lived, though, as Parler was quickly booted from the internet after being removed from Apple and Google’s app stores, as well as from Amazon Web Services, for a lack of moderation regarding content promoting the violent riots at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6. In contrast, similar content was also spreading across significantly larger networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, for weeks leading up to the Electoral College vote, but they faced no such action. Parler is now back online since striking a new deal with the Russian-owned DDos-Guard, after having spent a week struggling to find a new host.
So yes, you can jump to other social networks or even form your own if you disagree with the speech policies set by the largest companies in the world. But if your network does not abide by the standards of content moderation set by those companies, it runs the risk of being shut down. This is not to say that it is unreasonable to make content encouraging violence against your guidelines. But so long as the content is not illegal, a platform should not be faced with a dogpile of tech giants for choosing to let its users speak their minds.
That said, the pressure to conform with certain speech policies and standards of moderation does not come from tech companies exclusively. During congressional antitrust hearings on the tech monopolies held by Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, some U.S. senators argued for social media companies to be even more aggressive in taking down posts. Threats of litigation can be leveraged against tech companies by the government, encouraging them to pursue policies that may be preferred by certain officials or agencies.
So, is there anything that can actually be done to combat political censorship by tech companies? Maybe. The largest legal protections that tech companies have are those provided under the Communications Decency Act Section 230:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In a nutshell, this means that tech companies cannot be held liable for the actions of their users, i.e. you cannot sue Twitter for slander based on the statements made by Twitter user @FakeName37.
By and large, this is a good thing. A social media company that acts as a service provider should not be held responsible for the independent actions of its users. However, there is an argument to be made that companies such as Twitter, Facebook or Google — by choosing to take responsibility for the speech of their users out of concern for things like “disinformation” in the cases of the New York Post or election fraud conspiracy theorists — have now invalidated those protections. By deciding that certain kinds of political speech are not acceptable, they have effectively become publishers of content as opposed to simply service providers.
This is where the road starts to get a bit rocky. As I stated, it is very possible for the federal government to use threats of litigation as a way for tech companies to pursue policies it finds favorable. In early 2020, I wrote about one such case: the EARN IT Act, proposed legislation that would have threatened to remove Section 230 protections if tech companies did not sacrifice user data encryption and potentially even send all user messages to law enforcement agencies to be scanned for child sex abuse material. If Section 230 protections were to be revoked, this could still open a pathway to more authoritarian speech controls.
I stand by my opposition to the EARN IT Act for its intent to undermine end-to-end data encryption. However, with the increasingly apparent authoritarian censorship by tech companies (particularly in the past year), something may need to be done to preserve individuals’ freedom of political expression. Taking a good hard look at exactly who should be protected under Section 230 could be one solution, albeit a risky one.
According to the current interpretation of Section 230, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are protected from the threat of mass litigation by their users. But to allow tech companies to continue to abuse their monopolies over the public square of discourse unchecked is a serious mistake and one that needs to be addressed. If faced with no other option, rethinking Section 230 protections may just be a risk worth taking.