Big tech has made a big mistake. Swept up in a wave of political correctness and the fallout from the Russia investigation, many of the largest online platforms have embarked upon a fruitless adventure in censorship that can only further divide rather than unite the nation. These internet companies have lost sight of the most basic principle underlying the First Amendment, that no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we must put our trust in the power of a free market of ideas.
I have never read anything by Alex Jones or InfoWars, nor have any desire to read any of his conspiracy theories. However, I do care if 2.4 million of his followers on YouTube want to see his material and are now unable find it. It is their basic right as Americans to have unimpeded access to the material of their choice. But what some tech companies are doing today takes them away from operating as open platforms to becoming big media companies even though they are, by and large, legally immune from responsibility for user content. They cannot claim both the exemption under the guise of being just a neutral utility then turn around and use editors and algorithms to pick opinion losers and winners.
Until now, the big tech platforms like Google, YouTube, and Facebook stayed out of censoring. They preached the benefits of an open and connected society. If they were going to delete material, it would mostly be on a very limited basis, using a scalpel, not a machete. Sometimes they even tolerated too much freedom on their platforms and were fined for accepting fake drug ads, and for failing to police their platforms of sex trafficking and other crimes. They also have not always been vigilant enough to catch bots and fake accounts. They made some mistakes that they could and should fix to the best of their abilities.
But the wholesale removal of material from widely followed, fully disclosed, and completely accountable personalities crosses a dark line that could send a chill down the spine of anyone who would want to express exactly what they think and post it on the internet. Over the last decade, we gave these online platforms the keys to our information kingdom. We let them become more powerful than any newspaper or TV station. Now their response to being thrust into the political limelight is to become potential censors of our news and even opinion information.
As the Supreme Court has ruled, we can and should ban speech that leads to “imminent lawless action” but when dealing with opinion speech, even flaky and distasteful opinions, we should be very careful not to exceed the limits set down by the highest court. Whether done by the government or companies, the belief that speech is being suppressed on the basis of political ideology can be dangerously destabilizing.