Last week I commented on 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, 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, a conservative political historian, journalist, and elections analyst, who writes for The Weekly Standard and National Review, 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 James Madison (US  Founding Father President from 1809 to 1817) 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 realised 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” service 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.

This article first appeared at Engineering Ethics Blog. Republished with permission.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...