Engineering Ethics Blog: Our Unelected Big-Tech Overlords


 

Last week I blogged about how
Twitter kicked off @realDonaldTrump, and how decisions like that give the lie
to Twitter’s claim of common-carrier-like protection against lawsuits
granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  Normally I like to change topics every week,
but this week is an exception. 

 

A week ago today, on Jan. 10, Amazon
Web Services shut down its web-hosting services for the social-media network
Parler, taking it off the Internet and capping a series of moves by Amazon,
Apple, and Google that effectively ended the company’s ability to serve its
customers.  It was an extraordinary and united
show of the power that large tech companies have to censor social-media
speech.  Leaving aside for the moment the
question of whether the action was justified, it now appears that not only can
Big Tech edit content on its own sites as it pleases, it can exert the same
editorial power on supposedly independent companies like Parler.

 

The background of this
incident is informative.  As Twitter and
other mainstream social-media outlets began ramping up their removal and
suspension policies, Parler began to attract many of the users who left Twitter
for that reason.  The New York Times
reported that by Jan. 9, the day before Parler disappeared, it was the No. 1
free app for Apple’s iPhones.

 

No matter.  Some things are more important than
money.  Last week, Apple and Google
announced that they were no longer going to allow Parler to be downloaded to phones
with their proprietary operating systems, which meant that while existing customers
could still use the service (at least till Jan. 10), nobody new could
join.  But when Amazon pulled Parler’s
plug Sunday, even those apps became useless.

 

The reason given by Apple,
Google, and Amazon is that in their view, Parler was not sufficiently
monitoring the content of their posts for incitements to violence and
crime.  I have no way of judging that,
being a non-user of social media myself, but reports that Parler was used to
coordinate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in Washington seem credible.  So we will allow that this was a
problem. 

 

Reportedly, Apple gave Parler
24 hours on Friday, Jan. 8, to “clean up its act” and remove
offending posts, but Parler’s efforts were deemed inadequate, and Apple removed
Parler from its app store on Saturday. 

 

In a piece in National
Review
, Wesley J. Smith points out that Big Tech—Apple, Google, Amazon,
etc.—are now behaving more like a fourth branch of government than ever.  However tenuously, the three constitutional
branches of the federal government—the legislative, the executive, and the
judiciary—are beholden to the citizenry of the United States.  But no one elected the leaders of the media
giants who can, unilaterally and without breaking any laws, decide that a
competing social-media service that is growing rapidly and under the protection
of the same Section 230 that allowed them to become what they are today, decide
to kill a competitor like Parler in a matter of days. 

 

Historically, the United
States has been a haven for freedom of speech. 
It was a bedrock principle in the philosophical discussions which led to
the founding of the country.  In 1798, seven
years after the Bill of Rights was added to the U. S. Constitution, Congress
passed and President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made
it a crime to make false statements critical of the federal government.  These acts proved very unpopular,
contributing to Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the presidential election of 1800,
and the acts limiting free speech were allowed to expire by 1801. 

 

Jay Cost points out that
tolerating a certain amount of offensive speech is the price of allowing
freedom of speech, which is vitally necessary to a self-governed people.  He quotes Madison as saying, “Our First
Amendment freedoms give us the right to think what we like and say what we
please.  And if we the people are to govern
ourselves, we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a
minority.”

 

The excessive restrictions of
the Alien and Sedition Acts were duly removed in keeping with the idea that any
significant restriction of free speech is inimical to the free exchange of
views that a free citizenry needs in order to govern itself.  Madison realized that certain people would
abuse that right, but he regarded it as the price we had to pay in order to
avoid suppression of thoughts that the powerful in government disapproved of.

 

I am personally appalled by
the execrable and deadly riot at the Capitol, and by anyone who uses the
Internet to encourage violence.  But for
some time now we have been trying to have our social-media cake and eat it
too.  The vaunted freedom of social-media
speech is no longer free if those who run the media empires can squash, not
only speech on their own systems, but speech on rival companies by shutting
them down.

 

One choice is to accept the
fact that in order to use social media at all, we will be subject to the
consensus censorship of the powerful few who run the “private” sevice
providers, and we will simply have to accept whatever they think is right as
far as what can be posted and can’t be.  This
is the direction we are heading.  And it
looks to me no different than the regime imposed by the Alien and Sedition
Acts, a situation in which anyone who wants to post anything that the powerful
firms think goes too far is simply out of luck and can’t do it, with no
appeal.  Yes, we might agree that letting
people organize an attack on the Capitol is not a good idea, but in killing
Parler, Apple/Google/Amazon are acting as legislators (making their rules),
executives (imposing the rules) and judges (deciding where the rules
apply).  And if you don’t agree with what
they decide, which many of the millions of users of Parler who didn’t post
objectionable material didn’t, well, you are just out of luck.

 

Another alternative is to take
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act seriously, and go only after the
individuals responsible for objectionable speech if they violate any laws, or
prompt such violation of laws.  That is
what Parler more or less tried to do, and you see what happened to them.  As deplorable as much of the material they
carried on their system was, Parler was much more in the spirit of Madison’s
attitude toward free speech.

 

China shows that huge
successful economies can thrive under a repressive government that makes people
watch everything they say and hauls them off to a concentration camp if they
say the wrong thing.  But, as I said,
some things are more important than money.

 

Sources:  The New York Times report on the
squelching of Parler appeared at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/technology/apple-google-parler.html.  Wesley J. Smith’s editorial on Big Tech
appeared in National Review at https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/big-tech-now-the-fourth-branch-of-government/.  Jay Cost’s essay on James Madison and freedom
of speech appeared in the same journal at
https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/09/james-madison-free-speech-rights-must-be-absolute-nearly/.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on
Parler and the Alien and Sedition Acts.



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