When I was in Iran, the government there blocked Twitter, effectively deciding for an entire nation what they cannot read. In America, Twitter itself purges users, effectively deciding for an entire nation what they cannot read. It matters little whose hand is on the switch: government or corporate, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.
Speech in America is an inalienable right, and runs as deep into our free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote that it flowed directly from his idea of a Creator, which we understand today as less that free speech is heaven-sent so much as that it is something that exists above government. And so the argument that the First Amendment applies only to the government and not to private platforms like Twitter is both true and irrelevant—and the latter is more important.
The government remains a real threat to free speech. But there is another menace now: corporate censorship, often dressed up in NewSpeak terms like “deplatforming,” restricting “hate speech” and “fake news,” and “terms of service.” This isn’t entirely new: corporations have always done as they please with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, best expressed as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” This ethos was core to our democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw their ideas into the marketplace, where an informed people push bad ideas away with good ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.
For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with our near-universal agreement over the right to speak, driven by a false belief that too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the old-timey First Amendment and taunting “conservatives” for not being able to do anything about it. But the most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which once embodied “defend the right, not the content” when it stood up for the free speech rights of Nazis in the 1970s.
Not anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other issues (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the feelings of people of color). The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech should be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they determine is a greater good.
So in 2018, whenever old tweets clash with modern-day definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon recently removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its store. This was just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merchandise, but the issue is not the value of the products—that’s part of any free speech debate—it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by, in this case, literally pulling items out of the marketplace. Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed from networks where it had been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon. The Huffington Post wondered why even more platforms haven’t done away with Jones.
“Hate speech,” clearly not prohibited according to the Supreme Court, is an umbrella term used by censorship advocates to describe anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.”
Twitter is perhaps the most infamous example of a platform censoring its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets. It suspends those who promote (what it defines as) hatred and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit the size of their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. Users can report other users so that Twitter can evaluate whether they should be suspended. The motivation is always the same: to limit the ideas people can choose to be exposed to.
The problem here is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, Zuck, and @jack is popular, as is extolling their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding that they do it.
Of course, values shift, and what seems good to block today might change tomorrow. But the biggest issue is that companies exist to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means it will inevitably quash ideas when they conflict with profits. Those who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the First Amendment and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.
Google (until May) had a slogan commanding its employees: “don’t be evil.” Yet in China, Google is deploying Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course, in China they don’t call it hate speech; they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. Meanwhile, Apple removes apps from its store at the command of the Chinese government in return for market access. Amazon, which agreed to pull hateful merchandise from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed that it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” in using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with a future loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?
Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. In 2018, the platforms in question are near-global monopolies. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post and can influence elections, is just another company that sells things, is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Censored on Twitter? Try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance have changed the nature of censorship so that free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate. In 1776, you went to the town square; in 2018, it’s Twitter.
Senator Chris Murphy, in a recent and ironic tweet, demanded that social media networks censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying that companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. Murphy already knows that companies can censor. The debate for us is over what happens when they do.
Let me end on a personal note. I was this week permanently suspended from my Twitter account, @wemeantwell. This followed an exchange I had with mainstream journalists over their unwillingness to challenge government lies in which I made a flippant remark no hotter than what you see on Twitter every day. Twitter sent an auto-response to me saying that what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word for it. I wish instead you could have read my words and decided for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. They have eliminated everything I wrote there over the past seven years, all down the Memory Hole. That’s why censorship is wrong: it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.