Should Tech Companies Be Allowed to Censor Content?
This week could go down as landmark moment in internet censorship precedent. If you aren’t aware of what happened, here’s a quick summary: InfoWars and Alex Jones were removed from Apple Podcasts, and then within a few hours InfoWars was banned from Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and almost every major content platform. InfoWars if you don’t know is a sensationalist news show based around the controversial opinions of Alex Jones.
*Note: I wouldn’t call InfoWars right-wing because most on the right disagree with their opinions too.
The domino effect extended to even behind the scenes B2B SaaS companies that banned Alex Jones from using their service, like MailChimp and Sprout Social, which I think is much more of a PR stunt than anything else.
Nonetheless, he’s been banned off every major content platform except for one, Twitter. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO has this to say in response:
“We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or InfoWars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules/ We’ll enforce if he does.”
More importantly though, Jack Dorsey also said:
“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us.”
Jack hit the core of the problem right there, most of these companies reacted out of fear and personal views rather than being impartial. But here’s the crux of it all, businesses have the right to refuse customers, or in this case users. And I stand by that. But these companies also hold content monopolies and being banned from social media seriously restricts a person’s ability to have their voice heard. This time it was far right conspiracy theorist, but it sets a precedent that they could do this to anyone.
This is not a left or right issue, this is a free speech issue.
It’s a question of should social platforms be treated the same as a town square? In a town square you have free speech, and can freely display your opinions whether they be popular or not. But in our new digital town squares, private companies are now allowed to police what is said. Small groups of people who were not elected can decide what is and isn’t hate-speech. The question is, is that right?
And what’s the solution? Government intervention? Those are two words most people aren’t fond of either. These are difficult questions and ones that I don’t currently have an answer to, I’ve read a lot from both sides of the argument. One being to allow complete free-speech and disregard each company’s right to refuse a customer, and the other of allowing each company to police for hate speech, which is somewhat violating a person’s free speech rights.
I will say that the censorship seems to have only helped InfoWars, their app on the App store rocketed up and has surpassed both CNN and the New York Times on Apple’s news app rankings. That certainly says something.
Are Decentralized Platforms the Answer?
Now, one solution that’s come up is of course blockchain. Decentralized social platforms that are not controlled by a one entity. One example being steemit.com which we have used in the past to upload our content. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it has a few million users and is growing. It’s a platform that runs on the Steem blockchain, and content creators are paid in the Steem cryptocurrency based on how many likes their content gets. And that’s just one example, there’s also DTube which is a decentralized competitor to YouTube.
These could work, but we’re probably still very far away from a decentralized social network reaching the levels of Facebook or YouTube simply due to network effects. All of the current platforms have billions of users and great products. It would take a major screw up from these companies to cause users to switch. Even in the face of all of the scandals and controversy that’s surrounded Facebook over the past year their user base did not shrink. So don’t expect users to flock to decentralized platforms any time soon.
There is no easy answer to any of this, but I think it’s important we think about the problem reasonably, and especially refrain from jumping to one side or the other with our emotions rather than engaging in deep thought.
I know many people despise Alex Jones and I’m certainly not a fan, but it’s important to think about this as bigger than him. This is about the precedent events such as this set, not the individual who happens to be the subject.
Today it’s Alex Jones, and if you’re left leaning you think that’s fine, but what if tomorrow it’s someone who leans very far left. Many people’s reactions might be different. This is situation is incredibly complex, and I would love to hear what you think.