On January 10, 2021, Apple, Google, and Amazon collectively de-platformed the “free speech” social media website Parler for failing to sufficiently police its users' posts, specifically posts that encouraged violence and crime.
It can hardly be argued that some of the comments posted on the alternative social network are alarming and deeply unsettling.
Regardless of one’s views on this particular site, is it problematic that big tech companies have this much power?
Should big tech companies wield unchecked power over digital speech? Effectively claiming the ability to shut down entire websites and to prevent tens of millions of followers from seeing content that these companies disagree with?
Even if the current political winds make those decisions easier to justify, we must be careful what we wish for. The long term consequences of these actions are disastrous for our civil liberties.
Today, Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are blocking access to a site on the basis that it does not have a content moderation scheme in place. What if next time, they block access to a site because it has content moderation rules that they simply don't agree with?
Moreover, they are taking these actions to solve a problem that they are largely responsible for creating.
Let us not forget that it was their very own draconian moderation policies that silenced opposing opinions and forced many conservatives away from mainstream platforms. Sites like Gab and Parler rose up because a large percentage of the population felt they no longer had a voice on traditional social media.
It is arguably within the rights of these platforms to prohibit viewpoints they disagree with. That especially goes for speech that incites violence or other illegal activity.
However, it is not within their rights to silence unaffiliated sites based on editorial decisions or political beliefs. And make no mistake – the collateral damage caused by the repeated attacks on sites like Parler, the Federalist, and even far-left sites like the World Socialist Web Site, are not trivial in their long-term consequences, nor are we naïve enough to believe they are without political motivation.
We have given too much power to tech companies who care little about the ramifications of their actions on society.
Democracy requires opposing perspectives. Censoring that discourse is irresponsible and serves only the vested interests of big tech companies.
This is clear when you consider that the origin of the current political polarization we are seeing in this country can largely be traced back to social media. Advertising platforms have long learned that people respond more readily to viewpoints they agree with. This has given rise to extremely lucrative digital echo chambers which reinforce opinions one already holds.
It is these echo chambers (and the algorithms which power them) that can – and does – spread extremism.
The current state of affairs is no longer tenable.
Tech companies exceeding a reasonable size that host user generated content or act as primary gatekeepers for third party content (search engines, video sites, social media platforms) should be legally separated from their advertising businesses. This change would immediately disincentivize bad behavior which has had a negative effect on society.
Lawmakers should of course consider antitrust measures to break these companies up even further. Should the same companies that dominate mobile device hardware and operating systems have ties to search, social media, and content distribution?
The fact that a handful of companies can effectively shut down any company with impunity indicates that these organizations are already too big and too powerful.
We all need to take responsibility for limiting the data we’re sharing with these platforms and seek out alternatives to centralized technology.
These companies began by claiming our data as their own. Now they’re using their ill-gotten profits to work by putting their own interests ahead of ours.
We are not their data livestock.
Take steps to limit personal data exposure such as switching to an alternative browser not controlled by Big Tech companies.
And finally, sometimes the old ways work best. Lobby your Senators and local Congressional Representatives to break up Big Tech.
The time for action is now!