The Cost of Free Speech


Well, you’d have to say that the past week has been interesting.  It’s not every week that Joe Biden “officially” won the 2021 election, again, as Congress certified the election results.  It’s not every century when the U.S. Capitol is overrun by hostile forces.  And it’d never been true before that Twitter and Facebook banned President Trump’s accounts, or that various tech companies belatedly acted on the threat that Parler poses.  Oh, and we hit new daily records for COVID-19 deaths (over 4,000) and hospitalizations (over 132,000) in case you’d forgotten there is still a pandemic going on. 

Yes, all in all, a very “interesting” week.

I’m going to skip talking about the horror that was the Capitol insurrection, in part because I fear that we’re going to find out more details that will make it clear that it was even worse than we now know.  Similarly, I’m not going to dwell on the shame that Republicans should feel about the fact that two-thirds of their House members still voted to object to certifying the election results even after they’d been forced to flee from the terrorists who sought that very goal with their violence.

Instead, let’s talk about “free speech,” and the social media platforms that helped foster the violence and are now trying to do something about that. 

President Trump had been making outrageous, often incendiary, usually false statements on social media for as long as he has used it, going back at least to his birther claims.  Twitter started attaching warning labels to many of his tweets during the 2020 campaign, but, despite pressure, Twitter had refused to ban his accounts, as a prominent public figure.  But last week it had had enough: “we have permanently suspected the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company wrote Friday. 

Facebook beat Twitter to the punch by a day, and other social media platforms followed suit, including Discord, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, not to mention Shopify and Pinterest (!).  Stripe will no longer process payments for the Trump campaign website.  

Parler was initially thrilled with the bans, expecting millions of Trump followers to migrate.  That was starting to happen when tech companies put the hammer down on it too.  Google first removed Parler from its Play Store, while Apple gave it 24 hours to clean up its moderation policies.  When that didn’t happen, it, too, banned it from its App Store.  Amazon workers demanded that AWS stop hosting Parler, and within days Amazon did so.    

Parler is now offline while it looks for other hosting services; it is now suing Amazon for antitrust, breach of contract, and interference with the company’s relationships with users.  Good luck with that; Parler CEO John Matze told Fox News over the weekend that “every vendor from text message services to email providers to our lawyers all ditched us too.” 

Conservatives are complaining about how their First Amendment right to free speech is being taken away.  For example, Rep. Devin Nunes lamented – on Fox News – “Republicans have no way to communicate.”  Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “Free-speech no longer exists in America.” They ignore the fact that the First Amendment only refers to the rights that Congress cannot take away, or that they were somehow still able to widely broadcast these opinions. 

There is no right to Twitter, much less to Pinterest.

Still, there is plenty of disinformation, even hate speech, left on Facebook and Twitter; Google and Apple allow other suspect apps in their Play Stores; AWS hosts other dodgy companies.  The various bans may satisfy some desire for action — any action — in response to what we saw January 6, but no one should believe that the problem is solved.

If it hadn’t been clear enough before, it is now very evident how tech has allowed the problem to become more widespread – and what impact tech can unilaterally bring to bear on it.  Within the space of a few days, the leading tech giants all took strong actions that, if the government had told them to do, we’d consider censorship. 

In a statement, ACLU senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane warned:

We understand the desire to permanently suspend him [Trump] now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions – especially when political realities make those decisions easier .

President Trump can turn his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others – like many Black, Brown, and LGTBQ activists who have been censored by social media companies – will not have that luxury. It is our hope that these companies will apply their rules transparently to everyone.

Ben Wizner, an ACLU lawyer, told The New York Times: “I think we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.”   

The problem is that when we allow neutrality, people use the internet to publish child pornography, plan mass attacks, or try to overthrow the government – to name a few abuses.  When we try to put a stop to them, we raise the questions of who is deciding which to curtail, how.  Thorny issues all. 

It boils down to the fact that free speech isn’t free.  It has consequences.  We might all agree that falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater isn’t an appropriate use of free speech, but we don’t always agree on when there is a fire or on the best way to put one out. 

I’m glad that President Trump has fewer avenues on which to stoke divisions.  I’m glad that when I finally write about Parler, it’s about it being shut down, albeit temporarily.  But I despair at the disinformation and vitriol that remain on social media and other platforms.    

The bans aren’t a perfect solution, but they are a start.  There is a fire and we need to recognize the threat it poses.  There have to be lines about acceptable online behavior upon which we can agree on as a society.  If we can’t, we may not have a society much longer; at least, not one we’d recognize.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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