I am conflicted about the Alex Jones purge
This week the major tech platforms deleted content by Alex Jones from their platforms. Apple started the ball rolling by removing his podcasts from their catalog. The next day Facebook, Google (YouTube), and Spotify followed suit.
Let me state up right up front that I find Alex Jones to be a despicable human being. He spouts the most heinous bile all in the name of making money. Being outrageous is his livelihood and by all accounts he is good at it:
There can be no other right-thinking reaction to quotes like those above other than pure horror. And yet I am troubled on some level that he is being banned from these platforms. Let's dive into this a bit.
FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
On the face of it, this seems like a violation of the right to free speech guaranteed in the US Constitution.
On reading the amendment you will see that it protects the citizens from actions taken by the government which would restrict these enumerated freedoms, including the freedom of speech. The ban on Alex Jones content is not the direct result of actions by Congress and, so, one can argue that this ban is not a constitutional issue. These are the actions of private companies acting on what they see as their best interest and the interest of their constituency.
While this does not seem, on the face of it, a first amendment violation there is still some things that trouble me.
WHO DECIDES WHAT INFORMATION YOU WILL HAVE ACCESS TO?
The first amendment protects speech in the "public square", but says nothing about private spaces. In the 18th century this was a very real distinction. But in the 21st century these lines are blurred.
In the case of a private company, where one of the employees is constantly spouting and ranting about things that make the other employees uncomfortable the employer is well within their rights to ask the offending employee to cease and desist. And if the offending employee does not comply then the employer can rightfully terminate that employee for cause. I don't have any problem with this scenario.
And, on the face of it, Apple, Google, et. al. have a similar right to defend their platforms as if they were private spaces. The question arises, though, on whether their platforms are private spaces or pseudo-public spaces, i.e. the new public square.
Facebook, in particular, feels like the 21st century public square. A billion or two people around the globe use it as such. The genesis of this service was that one could enter a virtual world and have contact and conversations with people who are geographically dispersed. This removed the 19th century restriction of the public square requiring physical proximity and replaced it with the requirement of Internet access and a proper device.
So, maybe Facebook and YouTube and Twitter are the new public squares - even though they are operated by private entities for a profit. If this is the case how do these private profit-making entities decide who/what to censor?
It seems that "Hate Speech" is the offense that Alex Jones is guilty of. This is a term that sounds important but defining what constitutes hate speech is like trying to grab fog - you know it's there but you can't put your arms around it.
So who decides what is Hate Speech? YouTube? Apple? Zuckerberg? AI bots?
OMG! AI will save us?! Is this a real answer?!
I am worried that this private entity censoring/banning is a slippery slope. While I don't mourn for Alex Jones I do worry about the rest of us. It is all very arbitrary and that arbitrariness can be used against you or me to stifle legitimate debate.
Another nuance that strikes me is that while Congress is not acting in a direct way that would violate the first amendment it seems that, with the public shaming that occurs in Congressional hearings, that they are pressuring these private entities to do their bidding. This is blurring the line between "Congress shall make no law..." and how Congress can get actions taken to their liking. This can be more dangerous than passing legislation because there is no accountability trail.
To sum up my conflict:
- Banning Alex Jones does not, on the face of it, seem to be a first amendment violation because it is actions taken by private companies not Congress.
- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, et. al. may be blurring the lines between the public and private spheres. They may be the public square of the 21st century.
- The criteria for censoring/banning taken by these private for-profit companies is arbitrary and opaque. How do they decide? Even they can not articulate it.
- Pressure from Congress in public shaming sessions may push these private entities to do Congress's bidding.
- An arbitrary and opaque private sector censor may to be a slippery slope to censorship may be an eventual challenge to our right to "...to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Maybe I am overly sensitive to this issue, but my Spider Sense is tingling.