It has all happened so quickly. In a few short weeks, a country founded on free speech has become a country where speech can be stifled at the whim of Tech Giants. They control too much. They have too much power. They are the tyrants of the information age and a fundamental threat to American liberty.
Twitter banned President Trump. So did Facebook. They also canceled the accounts of hundreds of Conservatives, Republicans, and Trump followers. It was a political purge. Then Google and Apple took down the Parler App. It was a blatant attempt to prevent people from communicating and to kneecap political opponents. Amazon took it one step further and cancelled its contract to host servers for Parler. This abuse of monopoly power to prevent fair competition is the raison d’etre for anti-trust laws. It may also qualify as a RICO violation. Parler has filed suit against Amazon.
The takedown of free speech has extended to publishing. Simon and Schuster has cancelled publication of a book by Senator Josh Hawlings.
So much for the free market of ideas when the Tech Giants conspire against it.
This Blitzkrieg by Information Age Stormtroopers has nothing to do with stopping violence or upholding community standards. The same organizations were happy to disseminate countless threats of violence against President Trump. They chortled with glee to carry traffic devoted to organizing riots, arson, and looting in Minneapolis, Seattle, New York City, Kenosha, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a dozen other cities. They were proud to do their part for the Woke cause when they hosted sites for planning attacks on the White House, the Supreme Court, and on Federal Courthouses. The Social Media giants aided and abetted violence in which people were killed, police were attacked, neighborhoods were torched, and stores were looted. They did not condemn violence all summer and they took no action against it. To what degree they were complicit in organizing the agitation and arranging bail funds to spring those arrested is an important question. An honest investigation of the role social media played in the urban unrest is sorely needed. A Special Prosecutor or two should look into whether RICO charges should be filed against the leaders of Social Media companies for the violence they instigated.
Whether you favor President Trump or detest him, banning him and his followers from a network is a direct attack on the principle of free speech. It is a rejection of the fundamental conception of America as a free country where political differences are expressed and debated, not suppressed. In many spheres of transportation, communications, and commerce, we operate under a paradigm of fair treatment under which everyone gets the same service regardless of politics. This is a bedrock principle for a free country. You get electricity and water even if you are a Communist and even if the utilities are owned by Trump supporters. People who cheer repression of Trump supporters now may soon regret it when they find they have established a precedent that is turned against them.
Recently a belief has arisen that American law and tradition is one of untrammeled free enterprise that allows privately owned networks to set whatever conditions they want. This claim of corporate capitalist hegemony asserts social media giants have every right to enact political bans on its platform. But nothing could be further from the truth. The need to prevent huge private corporations from dominating the market of good and the market of ideas was recognized over a hundred and fifty years ago. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed in 1890.
In America, most enterprise open to the public operate under Federal and State Commercial codes. These stipulate that businesses are obligated to offer services to all customers. Special protections are afforded under Civil Rights laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, gender, marital status, and sexual orientation. But everyone gets to ride on a bus, make a call, fly on a plane, ship goods, or buy a Big Mac. That is the essence of a free market. This is not a new doctrine.
Communication networks in particular have long been viewed as common carriers required to provide non-discriminatory services to all members of the public. Going all the way back to the 1860s, the Federal regulation of telegraph and railroad companies mandated the provision of service without discrimination. In 47 US Code 11 it says:
If any railroad or telegraph company referred to in section 9 of this title, or company operating such railroad or telegraph line shall refuse or fail, in whole or in part, to maintain, and operate a telegraph line as provided herein, for the use of the Government or the public, for commercial and other purposes, without discrimination, ….then any person, company, corporation, or connecting telegraph company may apply for relief to the Federal Communications Commission,
In the 1950s, the FCC Fairness Doctrine required TV and Radio stations to broadcast political messages in opposition to those broadcast by the station. Anti-trust law has been used by the government to file suits to prevent one group from owning controlling interests in all newspapers in a local market.
The telephone company in the US, but not in all other countries, is forbidden from listening in on your call and then cutting it off because you said something the phone company did not approve.
In retrospect, the 1996 Communications Act left giant loopholes for the social media companies to exploit. They were not the giants they are now and did not have a stranglehold over any mode of communication back then. The internet geeks of the time were always talking about how liberating the world of electronic communications would be and how individual freedom would flourish in a world of live streaming. They also proclaimed they were a force for good and would do no evil.
But after two decades, they have grown big and bad. The collusion of malicious intent was obvious to all when Google and Apple removed the Parler App from their App stores. Whatever the ostensible justification, the obvious reason is that they wanted to prevent users of the App from communicating political ideas they did not like. This is effectively censorship and it is horribly wrong.
Meanwhile, Google and Apple devices and hosted Apps are used for child pornography, drug trade, embezzlement, anti-Semitic propaganda, racist hate speech, illegal immigration, terroristic threats, money-laundering, and more. But they are somehow unwilling to stop those uses of their devices. Even more outrageous, our current laws do not hold them responsible. Instead of promoting the free exchange of ideas promised by the information age, they tried to destroy an App that was promoting free speech. They have become the force of Evil they swore they would never be. At least Google stopped claiming its motto was “Do No Evil” a few years back.
The Tech Giants have developed networks with many of the characteristics of natural monopolies. They should be subject to strict anti-trust regulation. They have grown into monsters controlling the market, blatantly committing anti-trust violations, and stifling the free exchange of ideas. The Social Media Behemoths should be regulated as utilities. They should get to make a profit supplying all customers with the wire, but they shouldn’t get to control the content. A company that provides a network does not need to agree or disagree with its customers: its rightful role is to supply a neutral platform for them to use.
If customers use the wire for illegal purposes, the legal authorities, not private interests, should be the ones with primary responsibility to investigate, prosecute, and punish the offenders. The networks should have some obligation to help law enforcement in this task, subject to 4th Amendment protections. However, Apple and other cellular providers have consistently declared they should not be required to help government investigate wrongdoing. They won’t help the FBI crack phones used by terrorists. You could argue that issue, but you can’t have it both ways. The Tech companies have a totally muddled and intellectually incoherent position on their roles and responsibility in preventing illegal activity or in stopping the promulgation of violence and hate speech on their devices and networks. It seems they trot out these arguments as a cover to advance their own politics and ignore them elsewhere whenever there is a buck to be made.
Some have focused on Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act as the key, but that is short-sighted. It may in fact be reasonable to give the Telecommunications companies immunity as long as they stay away from dictating and proscribing political content. If slander or libel is transmitted over the wire, the injured party can sue those who originated the falsehoods. But, for the network not to be held liable, it must not be involved in selecting what content is allowed. Reform of Section 230 falls short of the greater need to curb the power of Tech giants. Lawyers alone won’t save our freedoms.
We need tough new legislation, ironclad regulation, arrests, and massive fines to prevent the Social Media giants and Tech Billionaires from destroying freedom of speech in America. I may be one of the few who sees the value in having large networks and so I don’t think it is wise to take a hatchet to these organizations. However, many ancillary and competitive services can and should be forcibly spun off. But the focus needs to be stopping them from controlling political discourse. They should not have that power. They should not be allowed to stop the free exchange of political ideas. People on all sides of the aisle need to wake up to the threat of Big Tech tyranny and unite to put a stop to it.