Yes, We Should All Be Talking About Free Speech

The recent platform bans on Trump and his allies show us that times have changed dramatically, and we need to modernize our discussion about freedom of speech.

On Thursday, January 7th (2021), just one day after the attacks on the Capitol, Facebook announced that it was banning Trump’s page for at least two weeks. A day later, after much pressure, Twitter permanently banned Trump’s account. Other companies have followed the trend since. Apple and Google removed Parler, a micro-blogging service heavily used by Trump supporters, from their app stores; Amazon recently canceled its hosting services to Parler; YouTube banned Steve Bannon’s channel; Reddit banned the main Trump subreddit; Discord banned a Trump-centric server; Shopify stopped processing payments for Trump’s campaign and personal brand stores; and Twitter also banned Trump’s campaign account, his campaign manager’s account, and other right-wing figures. You can see a list of where the president has been banned here and a list of other prominent people that have been banned here.

It is undeniable that many of these actions were inspired by each other. It is unlikely that Twitter would’ve permanently banned Trump’s account had Facebook not banned it for two weeks the day before, which in turn wouldn’t have happened had Twitter not established a 12-hour ban right after the attacks.

Regardless, the recent bans on Trump and other right-wing figures are unprecedented. It is the first time in the history of these platforms that they took moderation actions at such scale. (Note that these companies have banned important political figures before, but no one as mainstream as the president of the United States). Nonetheless, how these actions happened — rushed by a time of crises and under insane public pressure — makes me worry. While these bans come as a quick fix to a bomb that exploded on January 6th, I want to ensure that we do not miss the bigger question: what does it mean to have freedom of speech online?

I want to make it very clear that I agree with the bans on Trump and other right-wing extremists’ accounts. Nonetheless, due to the subjectively positive nature of these bans, people have been quick to dismiss questions about freedom of speech. The argument seems to go as follows: “Since he was clearly inciting violence and insurrection, which is illegal and goes against the rules of these platforms, the bans were not an attack on free speech but rather an attempt to prevent further violence.”

While I agree that these bans were not an attack on free speech and were justified under the circumstances, I do not think that we should dismiss the freedom of speech conversation because of that.

Big Tech has accumulated a scary amount of power and, consequently, earned a huge responsibility in our society. They hold the keys to the information people consume, and these events will set the tone for how that information is distributed, selected, and regulated. Justified though these bans may be, I argue that we cannot dismiss the free speech conversation. We ought to reflect on who governs Big Tech, who should have a say on these regulations, and what the companies’ responsibility within society should be.

The Power of Big Tech

(Image Credit: MIT Sloan)

As I scrolled through Twitter hours after Trump’s permanent ban was announced, I ran into a tweet that encapsulated the power Big Tech has achieved in our society (unfortunately, I could not find the original tweet):

“A couple hours ago, an engineer sitting in an office in San Francisco pressed enter on a computer and silenced the president of the United States.”

Sure, the president is not fully silenced. He can still invoke press conferences, has a press secretary, and can always call his friends at Fox News. But the point holds — with the click of a button, social media platforms have the power to silence anyone they deem to be infringing their platform’s rules.

Many people have taken this obvious realization and transformed it into the ridiculous slippery slope argument. They claim that “if Twitter banned Trump, who can’t they ban?”

In a recent essay, Joe Duncan perfectly summed up the fallacy of the Slippery Slope argument:

“[…] this sounds a bit to me like, ‘We have to legalize domestic violence, otherwise we risk giving the police the power to arrest us for hugging.’”

The point is not what Trump’s ban may lead to, but instead what this means for the role of Big Tech in society. Trump had almost 90 million followers on Twitter at the time he was banned. A significant number of those people likely used Twitter as a primary information source for direct updates from the president. A similar logic applies to many of the other platforms and channels that were banned — they were all relevant information sources for some people. In a matter of hours, following the decision of a handful of executives at tech companies, all these information sources were gone.

Again, I believe these bans were far beyond justified and highly needed. But they shed light on the power that Big Tech has accumulated. A handful of executives — with their biases, tendencies, and blind spots — get to make the decisions that decide what information millions of people see. Similarly, on the matter of fact-checking, the power of these platforms turned a handful of people sitting in offices in the Bay Area into the ultimate judges of what is true in our society.

So, I ask:

Is this the power we want these companies to have?

If so, fine, go ahead and dismiss the whole conversation on freedom of speech — the recent bans (and everything that led to them) become an irrelevant matter since Big Tech will become the new judge of speech and truth in society. If not, then let’s sit down and have thoughtful discussions about the role these companies ought to play in society.

Free Speech and the First Amendment

(Zimmytws/Getty Images)

Ever since these bans took place, most of the thought pieces I have seen fall under two categories. People either dismiss the whole discussion by claiming that this was in no way an attack on free speech, or people claim that these bans are unconstitutional since they represent an attack on the rights granted under the First Amendment.

I would rather argue for the middle way. I do not think these bans go represent an attack on the rights of free speech, but I do think that they should spark a discussion of what those rights mean in the digital era.

The First Amendment grants everyone the right to free speech, not the right to free reach. So, social media companies chose to take that reach away from Trump and his allies. But that is precisely the problem — the First Amendment was written in a world where freedom of speech and freedom of the press meant completely different things than they do now. Who in the world back in 1791 could reach 90 million people at the tap of their fingers?

In our modern world, the First Amendment is closer to a constitutional relic than to a practical guide to regulating speech in social media. By analogy, these platforms became the wild west of today: A place in which anything goes, so long as it is “in accordance” with the platform’s terms of service. Which, by the way, happens to be unique to each platform — for instance, Facebook strictly prohibits nudity while Twitter somewhat allows it.

I have recently seen many people — on both sides of the aisle — make the argument that social media companies should abide by the same rules as TV, Radio, and other media outlets do. This claim is outrageous and completely misses the point. Social media is not TV, it is not traditional press, it is not radio — it is its own thing (social networks), and as such it requires a new and exclusive set of regulations.

The question then becomes who should regulate these companies, which in turn reveals another problem of the modern world. When the First Amendment was enacted in 1791, nobody in the United States cared about how such a law was going to affect the land known today as Myanmar. But that matters a lot today. Companies headquartered in San Francisco have an enormous impact on what unfolds in the rest of the world — including, precisely, the recent genocide in Myanmar.

So, if the United States Congress decides to pass legislation to strictly regulate speech on social media, what impact does that have on speech on social media in the rest of the world?

Competition and Section 230

(Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash)

For years, people on both sides of the political spectrum have been discussing whether Section 230 should be repealed. For those unfamiliar, Section 230 is a piece of legislation passed in 1996 under the Communications Decency Act that basically makes internet platforms free of liability on third-party content. In other words, Twitter cannot be prosecuted for all the tweets Trump posted that led to the attacks on January 6th. However, after the recent events and under an all-democratic government, the calls for a reform of Section 230 will certainly return to the forefront.

The fact that this legislation was passed 25 years ago — when the internet was an infant and most people hadn’t even heard the term social network yet — only reinforces the need for modern regulation of social media platforms. Nonetheless, I believe that simply repealing Section 230 and making platforms liable for the content users post is not the solution.

As Jillian York well argued in an article for the MIT Technology Review, repealing 230 would only make it harder for smaller social networking companies to grow. The increased content liability would make it much harder for anyone to compete with tech giants, which would in turn concentrate even more power on these companies.

It is somewhat clear that more competition is needed in the space. Antitrust practices have been a regular issue in the tech industry for years, and competition gives users the ability to choose. If a platform’s behavior displeases the users, they have real alternatives to switch to competitors. This would, in turn, make social media companies less complacent and enforce practices that users approve.

The issue is that, if regulation of speech continues to be as it is today — unique to and at the discretion of each platform — this will lead to hate speech concentrating in certain parts of the internet. If a platform heavily enforces anti-hate speech policies, users looking to engage in those practices will seek other platforms where these actions are allowed or less regulated. The consequence? Parler.

The thousands of Parler users still exist, they are just platform-less for now. The millions of Trump followers who now can’t seem to get a hold of their leader will find a new way to do so. The thousands of people who regularly tuned in to Steve Bannon’s channel to consume conspiracy theories will find that content with a different creator. These people will end up somewhere else on the internet, and they will continue to engage in their groups and consume the content they seek.

This is why the bans on Trump and other right-wing extremists are just easy fixes; they are just patches on a bigger problem. So long as there is no clear regulation about what kind of speech should and shouldn’t be allowed online, people will continue to find places on the internet to perpetuate harmful practices.

The conversation around free speech and Big Tech is incredibly complicated. If we leave the companies to self-regulate, we make a handful of executives the ultimate judges of speech and truth in society. If we leave it up to governments, we are susceptible to political biases and fragmented regulation that varies from country to country. If we leave it up to users, we pave the way for hate speech to concentrate on platforms such as Parler, which we have seen to have terrible consequences.

I do not claim to have the answers as to how speech should be regulated on these platforms, who should regulate them, or their role in society. Those are conclusions that we all need to arrive at together, through dialogue.

The point to be made is that the recent bans on the president and other extremist figures are indeed a big deal. They show us that things are changing quickly in the landscape of communication. Consequently, we cannot continue to base our discussion of free speech on ideas written over 200 years ago. We need to have this conversation and we urgently need better regulation of speech online — and preferably regulation that is democratic, politically unbiased, global, and, overall, positive for humanity.

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