From The Wall Street Journal:
Call 2018 the “Year of Deplatforming.” The internet was once celebrated for allowing fresh new voices to escape the control of gatekeepers. But this year, the internet giants decided to slam the gates on a number of people and ideas they don’t like. If you rely on someone else’s platform to express unpopular ideas, especially ideas on the right, you’re now at risk. This raises troubling questions, not only for free speech but for the future of American politics and media.
The most famous victim of deplatforming is, not coincidentally, the least popular: Alex Jones, the radio host known for promoting outrageous conspiracy theories about everything from vaccinations to the Sandy Hook massacre. In a concerted action earlier this month aimed at loosely defined “hate speech,” Facebook , Apple , Spotify and YouTube removed from their services most of the material by Mr. Jones and his InfoWars network.Twitter recently followed suit with a seven-day suspension.
Their evasiveness isn’t hard to explain. After all, Mr. Jones isn’t doing anything different from what he has been doing for years. The real reason for his removal is that technology companies don’t like his views and have come under increasing pressure to deny him the use of their platforms.
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This week, Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes was suspended from Twitter along with his far-right Proud Boys organization, who call themselves “Western chauvinists,” though they say they oppose white supremacy. Twitter doesn’t like them, and it doesn’t like their politics. But even a mainstream conservative figure like radio host and author Dennis Prager has complained that YouTube placed age restrictions on some of the videos he produced. Facebook blocked an advertisement for Republican Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng, ostensibly because her video mentioned the Cambodian genocide, which her family survived. Microsoft even threatened to shut down the web services used by conservative Twitter-competitor Gab because a single user on the network had posted anti-Semitic content.
If internet megaplatforms like YouTube and Facebook were publishers, none of this would be especially problematic. One of the essential duties of a publisher is deciding what to publish and what not to publish. The Supreme Court has even held, in Miami Herald v. Tornillo (1974), that the law can’t compel newspapers to print replies to their articles, because it would interfere with their choice of what to publish.
But internet platforms don’t want to be treated as publishers, because publishers are also responsible for their decisions. If a newspaper publishes a libelous story, it can be sued. If it infringes someone’s copyright, it can be held liable for damages. And everything it chooses to publish or not to publish is a reflection on its reputation.
Today, the big internet companies are treated not as publishers but as conduits—tools that other people use to spread their own ideas. That’s why the “safe harbor provision” of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a landmark in internet regulation, states that platforms aren’t legally responsible for what other people publish on their sites. The law was originally intended to protect things like newspaper comment sections, but its application has become very broad, encompassing virtually all of the content on social media and sharing sites.
Now these companies are trying to have it both ways. They take advantage of the fact that they are not publishers to escape responsibility for the endless amounts of problematic material on their sites, from libel to revenge porn. But at the same time, they are increasingly acting like publishers in deciding which views and people are permitted on their platforms and which are not. As a narrow matter of First Amendment law, what these companies are doing will probably pass muster, unless some federal court decides, as in Marsh v. Alabama (1946), that their platforms are functionally equivalent to “company towns,” where the public square is privately owned.
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The notion that Silicon Valley megabillionaires are actively limiting what ordinary Americans can talk and write about is likely to produce a backlash. The tech industry’s image has already suffered over revelations about Facebook’s experiments aimed at manipulating users’ newsfeeds to test their emotional states, as well as various cases of invasion of privacy and data mishandling. Twenty years ago, most Americans saw Silicon Valley as liberating; now it seems to have gone from the hammer-wielding woman in that famous “1984” Apple commercial to the Big Brother figure up on the screen.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal