What is the purpose of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, of platforms/ app stores like Apple and Google, and of services powering the web like Amazon (AWS)?
The purposes are many and wide-ranging, but taking on the role of the judiciary, is definitely not one of them. As is not, deciding what content deserves to be distributed, or being an arbiter of lawful vs. unlawful speech. There is little grey here – the United States is a democracy with institutions like the Congress, the judiciary, and our elected representatives, responsible for upholding the law and acting against unconstitutional behaviour. If, hypothetically, these institutions or representatives are not doing their job well, does that mean other powerful forces can seek power that’s not theirs, and take on the role of the judiciary?
If, the above is given and accepted, what must follow, is shock and discomfort with Facebook’s and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, and Apple’s, Google’s, and Amazon’s decision to ban Parler, the social media app that is said to have been used to coordinate the US Capitol riots, and is generally used by Trump supporters and right-wing conservationists. Firstly, to clarify, I identify as a libertarian. However, this issue has little to do with anyone’s political and social beliefs, and more to do with the separation of powers between the state and big technology firms.
It has everything to do with the question – who decides what is, and is not, acceptable speech?
The ground for all these bans has been unanimous – to prevent Trump’s account or the Parler app from inciting further violence, and to protect the country’s safety. But, since when did big tech get to decide what is acceptable speech? The point is not whether the Capitol riots were actually coordinated on Parler and if it should exist; rather, the point is, who is making that decision? Big tech doesn’t get to decide others’ guilt and punish them – we have democratic institutions for that. Disagreement or generally accepted public opinion, is not grounds for a ban.
This is similar to Trial by media – i.e. the media assuming the role of the judiciary and pronouncing judgements before the actual verdict. This is a dangerous place to be in, for a democracy.
As long as the content is not unlawful (as governed by US law), it has to stay. As Ben Thompson argued last year, the job of social media platforms is not to decide what content gets published, but to distribute the content that’s published. Limiting the spread of information that is legally disputed, seems like a reasonable thing to do. Deleting or banning it outrightly, does not.
There is a thin line between the accuracy of a statement, and deleting it because you disagree or you ‘think’ that it is not acceptable. You are not the law – that is the whole point.
The other problem is competition. Today, blocking the app that helped plan the Capitol riots, seems like a reasonable and safe thing to do. But the thing with such power is, it doesn’t stop there. It becomes the norm rather than the exception. Yuval Noah Harari said the same of state surveillance last year – it’s impossible to go back. Tomorrow, this power could mean banning other operating systems on privacy grounds, cryptocurrency on safety grounds, and any competition on any reasonable-sounding ground. Competition is dead.
But, here is the devil’s advocate argument. Trump not accepting the election results, or his supporters storming the US Capitol is unconstitutional itself; it violates the principles of liberalism and democracy itself. Therefore, given that the President and his supporters have taken matters into their own hands, which has also resulted in loss of life, it makes sense to stem such unconstitutional activities from the root. ‘You are entitled to your political beliefs but not at the cost of anyone else’s safety or life’, is the argument from all tech firms. It sounds right – your beliefs or actions cannot endanger or harm others. That IS correct by all means, the problem is that tech firms cannot be deciding this. It is akin to taking the law in your own hands. If someone steals from you, you do not harm them yourself – you believe in the judiciary to give you justice.
Impeachment exists for presidents, trials exist for rioters. These systems may not be perfect, but they are what we have. And we cannot independently make parallel systems because we don’t like the existing ones.
Of course, there are parts of this that are not black and white – they are grey. Inciting violence, the loss of lives, a breach of safety at the highest levels of the Government – not everyday occurrences. If we know the platforms or people responsible for them, banning them seems like the right thing to do, in the short term. However, it breaks down in the long-term, when this precedence is applied to everything else, at the whims of powerful executives. Ben Thompson has beautifully argued that upholding liberalism is more important than upholding democracy because liberalism is the foundation of democracy. He says liberalism also includes the freedom of tech companies to act for themselves, especially when they feel nobody else will act, particularly to preserve democracy. However, this is a rare occasion where I will have to disagree with him. The absence of the state’s or judiciary’s or Congress’ actions on unconstitutional activities, does not give any company the power to assume that role. We have the next elections or an impeachment to change who we want this power to rest with. Our institutions may not be doing what they should, but that does not mean a handful of individuals do what they should.
- Stratechery on Trump and Twitter
- Stratechery on Facebook’s vs. Twitter’s decisions to censor / not censor Trump (last year)
- A Trump ban is easy. Fixing Facebook and Twitter will be hard – Wired
- Parler is banned by Apple, Google, and Amazon – NYT
- Trump’s video on the US Capitol riots
- Balaji’s and Benedict Evans’ tweets on this topic
- About Parler here – CNN