As concerned as we are about the use of social media to organize last week’s protest-turned-riot at the Capitol, we’re seeing another concerning trend develop in recent days. We’ve written here about the need for nuance in speech, so please bear with us. There’s a fair amount to unpack.
Parler, a social media app touted as an alternative to the giants like Facebook and Twitter, has effectively been shut down. Not, it is important to note, by the government, but by other companies. It began with Google and Apple removing the app from their stores. Amazon then cut off use of its servers, effectively forcing the web-based approach offline until it can rebuild.
Critics have cited this as a First Amendment issue. It’s not. Arguments about suppression of a person or company’s free speech rights often fall into this trap. The First Amendment guards against government interference with speech. It is necessarily silent on the question of private entities’ responses.
The First Amendment does not protect controversial speech from all repercussions. It cannot. Doing so would necessarily suppress speech in response to the original controversy. Thus people have the right to express their displeasure, to urge responses by private businesses, and those businesses have a right to respond.
An example would be a theoretical attempt to purchase an ad in a newspaper. Such a purchase is effectively gaining access to the paper as a platform for dissemination of a view, whether it’s to vote for John Doe in the upcoming election or that people should Eat at Joe’s. The vast majority of ads are welcome. But papers do have the right to say some advertising is not welcome. Papers can, and do, reject advertising from inherently odious potential customers. Doing so is not suppression of speech, but denial of a platform.
What would be concerning is if a newspaper, in denying such a customer advertising space, then took it further and attempted to impose its standards on other potential outlets. That is much more akin to what we’re seeing in the case of Parler, particularly with regards to Amazon’s decision. Amazon’s web servers have become so ubiquitous that the effect of being denied access to those servers comes perilously close to being denied access to the internet as a whole.
Need an example? In November of last year Amazon Web Services experienced a large-scale outage. It affected far more than the parent company. Roku, Adobe Spark, Flickr and others were all knocked offline for varying lengths of time.
The ability of a single company to determine whether another should have access to the public, based on whether the second company adheres to the same values as it holds, is problematic. When Twitter or Facebook lock down an account, they do it on their own services. Their decisions extend no further than their own apps and websites. When web stores for Apple and Google become involved, and even more so for things like Amazon’s web hosting, you’re talking about alterations to fundamental infrastructure.
In a broader sense, this concern echoes the growing concentration of online power in the hands of a comparatively few entities. While there are alternatives for, say, smart phones, the vast majority of them in the United States run either Android or Apple, and are thus beholden to those web stores. That results in outsized power as gatekeepers for both.
You don’t have to agree with the sentiments expressed on a network to find these trends concerning. Parler was, unquestionably, used by some to promote and incite violence last week at the Capitol. We find such acts repugnant, as we have said in previous editorials.
But we believe the proper response to offensive speech is, absent the proverbial cry of fire in a packed theater, more speech. Not in terms of shouting down opposing views, but of raising arguments and counter-arguments. Debates are won with persuasion, not power.
Usually we like to offer a solution when we raise concerns. There isn’t an obvious one here. We see competing interests that cannot easily be reconciled.
There is, as is so often the case, something individuals can do. We encourage people, whatever your views, to be measured in speech and to take the potential responses to it into account. Let us use our speech to calm, not inflame, and to build a better society.