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Silicon Valley judges FAANG

Leadership

Silicon Valley judges are imposing a death sentence on free speech. Here’s why they must be stopped

Published 5 March 2021 in Leadership

Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and colleagues – masters of the digital universe of FATGA (the acronym stands for Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple) – control what we see, hear and read. They run the contemporary agora, the planetary public square that stretches from Andorra to Australia.

In the beginning, just 30 years ago, the Internet was boundless liberty, a free-for-all without fences and fees – a democratic dream come true. FATGA loved it because these platforms, soon serving and making billions, bore none of the chains carried by normal publishers thanks to the US Telecommunications Act of 1996. An ordinary newspaper is liable under civil and criminal law if it spreads falsehood or defamation. Not so providers who just set the table with content cooked up by others. So, sue them!

It gets better still. Unleashed from constitutional guarantees of free speech, FATGA may kick anything off the menu they consider “obscene, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable,” as the 1996 Act has it. Wonderful, this law allows us to have it both ways. The state cannot force us to police the Net to evade profit-denting penalties, nor stop us from doing it ourselves. We decide what is proper and pleasing or what defies “community standards”. So, out with the noxious stuff. And: heads I win, tails you lose.

With unbridled power comes temptation and imposition, in this case privatized censorship that would have put Metternich or the 20th cen Stasi to shame. These enforcers of correct thinking had to break seals or steam open envelopes to unearth enemies of the state. Today’s gatekeepers just let their algorithms prowl the Net, sifting through trillions of data voluntarily handed over by us – the profiteers of borderless knowledge. We pay with our data to enjoy limitless information for “free”. Many would be shocked to know how much we reveal of ourselves after we click the “accept” button a dozen times per hour.

In due course, Silicon Valley’s masters, once the avant-garde of free speech, would turn into constabularies of censorship, aka “de-platforming”, a euphemism for suppression at the stroke of a few keys. Some examples: in the recent past, FATGA closed down the accounts of Donald Trump and silenced the social-media app Parler, which promotes itself as a free-speech haven against Twitter. Amazon kicked Parler out of its cloud. A professor holding forth on COVID-19 in front of a Senate committee was banned from YouTube. The message? What Senators can hear is poisoned fare for those who elect them.

A legion of examples adds up to a pattern. The targets of correct thinking are all on the Right, and so many among us approve of the digital offensive against mean-spiritedness, hatred and disinformation. But as Rosa Luxemburg, a German Communist in the interwar period, famously orated: “Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.” Let’s put it in practical terms good liberals would share. Today, the bad guys are being hit, but once “de-platforming” gels into a habit and power changes hands, the victims could be us even though cenwe abhor QAnon in our own time. Not so long ago, the powers that be in the American South assured the Ku Klux Klan that it had nothing to fear when wielding intimidation and force against the free speech of civil rights demonstrators. What about a middle-of-the-road scientist today who questions official wisdom on Covid lockdowns and excess mortality? Is he a kook who should be taken off the Net? Attacking tyranny at home, progressive foreign dissidents certainly spread “offensive” and “insurrectionist” stuff on Western media. So, let’s shut them off, too! In 1915, the US socialist Eugene Debs was convicted of sedition because he had opposed marching off into World War I. 

In 1951, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of American Communists for advocating the overthrow of the government, though they had met to discuss their ideological faith. Power tends to corrupt liberty and fairness, no matter whether the boot is on the right or the left foot.

So, what to do about insult, defamation, hate speech, minority-bashing, malicious intent and false accusation? We don’t need the private censors of FATGA to save the world from evil. Every Western country has laws on the book that proscribe such crimes. Let FATGA invoke them and then face the courts as neutral referees. Shifting de-platforming or “canceling” from companies to the government will not improve the fate of liberty.

The state must enforce the law, not raise walls against free expression. Just imagine packs of official watchdogs coming down on traditional newspapers and ordering editors to excise as hatred or lies what is actually ambiguous or a matter of legitimate debate. That would be the end of an independent press. Thank the Deity that blasphemy and lèse-majesté are now off the books.

When Twitter banned Trump, notes Emily Bazelon in the New York Times, “he found a seemingly unlikely defender: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who criticized the decision as a ‘problematic’ breach of the right to free speech.” Did she think that Trump’s oratory was defensible? It irked her that a private company had silenced the president; government should step in against culpable speech.

Yet neither government nor privateers can crack the eternal moral dilemmas of a free society by bureaucratic fiat or warp-speed algorithm. Both the state and the private sector have their own interests in expanding their power over the market of ideas. Governments of any hue don’t cherish opposing ideologies or hostile media. FATGA is not necessarily animated by the Greater Good, as it is quite convenient to be able to exclude competing outfits and apps from the revenue trough.

Praising ‘publicity’ in 1915, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis defined ‘sunlight’ as the ‘best disinfectant’ of toxic speech, adding: “electric light is the most efficient policeman”. Sounds idealistic or even naive, given the triumph of Fascism and Bolshevism in the following decades. Then let realism speak. Why would profit-seeking companies or governments serving fleeting majorities be better guardians of truth?

The liberal state depends on unbreakable barriers that signal: this is where you must not tread! Better to tolerate hateful opinions and fight them out in the open than submit to untrammelled power. Rationing thought is as bad for liberal democracy and intellectual progress as is a guided economy for the wealth and well-being of nations.

Shifting de-platforming or ‘canceling’ from companies to the government will not improve the fate of liberty
Josef Joffe

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Josef Joffe Portait

Josef Joffe

Josef Joffe, a member of the I by IMD editorial board, serves on the editorial council of the German weekly Die Zeit. Teaching international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he is also a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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