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Tech companies have the power to block President Trump from their websites last week and stop doing business with an app that some are urging violence to. And I believe they made the right decision to do so.
But it can still make us uncomfortable when the choice of a few unelected tech executives has too much influence on public discourse.
First, here’s what happened: Facebook froze at least temporarily the president’s account after he inspired a mob to attack the Capitol. Twitter has locked his account permanently. And then Apple, Google and Amazon pulled the plug on (mostly) Parler social network.
Kicking Trump go
Yes, Twitter and Facebook are allowed to decide for themselves who can use their services and what those users can do or say there. Locking your account in violation of Twitter’s rules is similar to a McDonald’s chasing you if you don’t wear shoes.
The First Amendment limited the government’s ability to limit people’s words, but did not limit the ability of businesses. And it brings businesses in the United States the right to make rules for what happens inside their walls.
Reasonable people may believe that Facebook and Twitter made the wrong decision by locking Mr. Trump’s account out of fear that his words could cause more violence. But they have the privilege of being the protector of what’s fit on their website.
Millions of times each month, Facebook and Twitter delete or block their posts or censor their users for a variety of reasons, from people selling fake Gucci products to people trying to post pictures of attacks. child terrorism or sexual abuse. Again, people can be justified with company policies or their application, but even the most basic rules are important. There is hardly any place on the internet or in the material world that is the absolute zone of freedom of speech.
Apple and Google app stores, and Amazon’s cloud service, also have reasons to ditch Parler, an app that has become a hub for acts of violence like the rage of the week. before. Parler places some limits on what people can say inside their digital walls, but their business partners have decided that the app breaks their rules when it doesn’t. act based on examples of inciting violence, including exhortation to kill the vice president.
Should these companies decide?
I can think that all of these tech companies have made the right decision in the past few days but still feel extremely annoyed that they are in a position to act as a Supreme Court – deciding for billions of people what is appropriate or behavioral and appropriate.
My McDonald’s example above is not really equivalent. Facebook and Twitter have become so influential that the choices they make about relevant public speeches are much more important than the fact that McDonald’s allows someone to buy a burger.
And while these companies’ rules are very broad, they are also erratically applied and modified just to their liking.
Plus, as freedom-speech activist Jillian York writes, most people have little “right to correct wrong decisions.”
There’s been a lot of screaming about what these companies have done, but I want all of us to realize that there are very few easy options here. Because the roots of these disputes are the big, difficult questions: Is it better to say more? And who decides?
There is a fundamental belief in the United States and in most of the world’s most popular online communication systems that what people say should be as limited as possible.
But we do know that truth doesn’t always prevail, especially when it counteracts intriguing lies told and recounted by powerful people. And we know that words can have deadly consequences.
The real questions are what to do when a person’s freedom of expression – falsely screaming fire in a crowded theater, or repeating false things that an election was cheating, for example – leads to harm or take away the freedom of another.
The Internet makes it easier for you to express yourself and reach more people, making these questions even more complex.
Apple and Google are largely the only place for people to download smartphone apps. Amazon is one of the few companies that offers the backbone of many websites. Facebook, Google and Twitter are essential communication services for billions of people.
The strange thing is not that we are grappling with age-old questions about the trade-offs for free speech. Oddly enough, companies like Facebook and Apple have become key judges in this debate.
Before we go …
What happened at the Capitol despite the easy-to-understand explanation: Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, reflected on a former colleague at BuzzFeed, who went from editing news to getting maximum online attention to one. Capitol hurricane last week. The man’s story shows that getting his claim online “can be fun and addictive,” writes Ben.
Check out some of the responses to the technology gatekeeper decisions: Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whom I cited above, has had a helpful rebuttal to some of the claims being made about the actions of Facebook, Amazon and other tech companies against the General. President Trump, Parler and others.
Tech gatekeepers as tools of government censorship: Different from the choices of American tech firms, major mobile phone providers in Hong Kong appear to have cut off a website used by some of the city’s pro-democracy protesters. My colleagues Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik wrote that this step raises concern that the authorities may be adopting censorship tactics that are widely used in mainland China in Hong Kong, long ago. Now is a fortress of online freedom.
I don’t know why this big, fluffy cat was on a beach. Enjoy it.
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