Big Tech And Censorship (2021 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

The largest and most powerful Big Tech companies – which include Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Twitter – concur on politics. Their top management is committed to the woke leftist agenda and – significantly – are intent on discrediting, concealing, reducing, and (whenever possible) eliminating internet content that is libertarian, conservative, or anything they regard as “right wing.”

Naturally the targets of their aggression are reacting to the attacks. Some are complaining that the large firms are employing censorship, which is a direct violation of the spirit of the First Amendment. But this charge is countered by the remark that genuine censorship can only be done by the government – which has the power to use force, forbid citizens from acting, levy fines, and even put those who do not comply in prison. Private companies do not (and never should) have government coercive power. In principle they ought to enjoy the right to conduct business as they see fit providing they deal by mutual consent and do not engage in fraud.

Adversaries of Big Tech point out that because the companies are so dominant and ubiquitous they should be treated as public utilities and forbidden to discriminate against content they find objectionable. And, in fact, Big Tech has legal protections which shields it from being responsible for items placed by users on its sites. But these protections are predicated on the assumption that Big Tech is not discriminating against users, while in fact it is persecuting those not on board with the leftist agenda.

Pull back and consider what the fundamental issues are.

The government should not engage in censorship. In a free society the state has to stay out of directing what citizens can say. Keep in mind that the essence of freedom of expression is to protect speech and writing that some people find distasteful or offensive. Proscribing speech or writing that is “hurtful” or “hateful” or “insulting” is the default behavior of tyrannical regimes. The only exception to this hands-off policy are cases of fraud or rantings that directly incite violence.

Note well that a government can (but should not) engage in censorship through surrogates. If state representatives instruct, persuade, or suggest that Big Tech companies stifle “unacceptable content,” that is just as bad as the government doing it by itself. A government entity might offer special prizes for cooperation or punishments for defiance when it makes “suggestions.” The proper role for state agencies with respect to content in media is to stay away completely.

If Big Tech is actively collaborating with government officials to tamp down and obliterate libertarian or conservative opinions on the internet that is a serious problem, and it must be stopped.

Consider the role of Big Tech regarding content. There are two incompatible ways to go. Big Tech can be content creators (they already are). This means the firms have legitimate authority to decide everything that is published on their sites. There is nothing objectionable about this role. A publication written for the Democratic party has no obligation to include pro Republican articles in its offerings. Similarly, there should not be any expectation that National Review or The Federalist feature content that touts leftist politics. It is obvious that creators can edit, include, or expunge material as they like. There are no sensible grounds for complaint.

The second way to go is to be a public communications service, ostensibly open to all users. The classic example of this role are telephone service providers. Telephone companies (presumably) do not monitor what you say. They do not edit or suppress your phone conversations. These firms provide services that are open to all potential customers. And the problem is that Big Tech companies, which are really content creators, pretend to be communication services. That is a clear case of fraud.

There are two ways to fix this, and neither is attractive to Big Tech. For many the preferred solution is for Big Tech to be genuinely unbiased, disinterested service providers. That implies there will no longer be fact checkers, no more editing or suppressing contrarian viewpoints, no more directing users towards or away from particular content. If the dominant companies adopted this policy they would almost certainly lose influence, power, and revenue. The firms would become what they do not want to be – gigantic telephone companies.

The alternative fix is to continue with their partisan policies, and possibly ramp up the volume. However, they would be required to describe themselves accurately. Envision Facebook or Twitter routinely sending a statement to all users asserting something like this: “We are committed to the woke agenda. Our mission is to support leftist causes and attack those who oppose our objectives. Be aware of this if you intend to participate in our services.” This might please the progressive elite, and would likely energize outsiders to seek and develop alternatives to the dominant firms.

In the long run the policy of full disclosure is the better way to go. It permits everyone involved to maintain consistency and avoid pretension.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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