Two days after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building last week, President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, setting off a cascade of similar bans of prominent right-wing media figures over the next several days that culminated in the House voting to impeach him just moments ago.
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia list of banned accounts in 2021 keeps growing, including figures like attorney Sidney Powell, former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, and today, conservative podcast host Mindy Robinson.
The line in the sand on where you fall on Trump’s ban is pretty simple, for the most part. Either you support Trump, in which case the ban is bad, or you don’t, in which case the ban is good. But the wave of bans extended beyond personalities; right-wing social media app Parler came under threat of suspension from the App Store and Google Play, and 24 hours later was banned by both and removed from Amazon’s web-hosting service, taking the service completely offline. Services like Reddit and Discord began removing communities within which conspiracy theories or violent content spread.
For many in the tech world, the line has become considerably less clear. The widespread banning of conservative figures and online spaces have shifted the discussion away from whether the President’s actions were deserving of a ban or not, and towards a broad question of free speech and censorship. Do social media companies have too much power? Are the bans justified or ethical? The tech and business world is split on the answers.
Mark Cuban mocks Josh Hawley
Some, like Mark Cuban, see it a little more black and white than others. One day after the Capitol was stormed, Congressman Josh Hawley (R-MO), who has become a lightning rod for angry reactions after he propagated election conspiracy theories and held up a fist in support of the very protestors who would breach the Capitol, tweeted in response to a statement from Simon & Schuster that they would no longer be publishing his upcoming book due to his actions leading up to and after January 6.
“This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is cancelling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition,” Hawley wrote. “Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the first amendment.”
One day later, Mark Cuban quote tweeted Hawley’s statement with his own response. “Josh, let me explain Capitolism to you,” Cuban wrote. “Sometimes people decide not to do business with you. It’s their decision. You know the whole “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” thing ? In your case it happens to be “No Principles, No Honesty, No Book.” Feel free to Self-Publish.”
Cuban’s statement doesn’t involve censorship by big tech, but his logic can be applied to the situation regardless. From this perspective, the banning of Trump is simply a service provider choosing who to let use their product — who is allowed on the platform and who isn’t is, for the most part, simply up to their discretion.
Elon Musk issues a warning
Elon Musk saw things a little differently. In a response to a tweet by parody news website The Babylon Bee which read “Evil Fascist Dictator Censored And Voted Out Of Office,” Musk replied, “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
One user responded by saying “West Coast high tech has to make the distinction between banning hate speech and banning speech it hates,” to which Musk replied, “This is an important distinction.”
The fact is that Twitter, as a private platform, is allowed to ban whoever it pleases. The first amendment only applies to freedom of speech from the government. But even if Twitter was subject to the first amendment, it would have legal basis to have banned Trump and other conservative figures. In Brandenburg v. Ohio and Terminiello v. Chicago, the Supreme Court rules that “incitement of imminent lawless action” and “fighting words” are notable exceptions to the first amendment.
But Musk is right on two counts: that people will be unhappy about the bans, and that regardless of any obligation to the first amendment, “West Coast high tech” has become the gatekeeper of the majority of public discourse.
"People are cheering because they hate Donald Trump so much. They can’t see that the biggest power grab in history has just happened." — David Sacks
The All In Podcast is split
The split opinion in the tech world on whether Twitter had overstepped its bounds was represented perfectly by the latest episode of The All In Podcast, hosted by Chamath Palihapitiya, Jason Calacanis, David Friedberg and David Sacks. The group recorded an “emergency podcast” shortly after the widespread bans began because, as Palihapitiya, who was mostly in support of the ban put it, “because we need to vent and because shit’s gone mad.”
In the episode, which is titled “Big Tech bans Trump, ramifications for the First Amendment & the open Internet,” all four members of the podcast agreed that what Trump did on the 6th was reprehensible, but a disagreement between Sacks, who framed the bans as a first amendment issue, and Friedberg and Palihapitiya, who’s issue was with the level of power held by social media companies, summarized the different perspectives on the issue neatly.
“The storming of the Capitol has been used to implement a sweeping attack on free speech… there is a widespread purge going on," Sacks said. "And not just of Trump and then a whole bunch of other people who are conservatives — there are now liberal accounts getting banned.” Sacks went on to specifically highlight a left-wing podcast called Red Scare which had its Twitter account suspended for unknown reasons.
Sacks has been vocal on Twitter about the series of bans, rejecting any notion that there is an organized moderation effort from social media companies. “Let’s stop pretending that Big Tech even has “moderation policies. They are making it up as they go, responding to pressure from above and below” he wrote. “They are adrift in terms of principle, which is what happens when you reject free speech.”
“The amazing thing is that we’ve had this sweeping appropriation of power by half a dozen oligarchs, who now have the right to determine what we see and what we read, and people are cheering because they hate Donald Trump so much,” Sacks continued on the podcast. “They can’t see that the biggest power grab in history has just happened.”
"When you have... an organization that gets to operate in the free market when it wants to, and operate like a quasi-governmental monopoly when it wants to, all of a sudden the power becomes in the shadows." — Chamath Palihapitiya
David Friedberg saw things more as Mark Cuban saw them. “Sacks, we’re talking about private services that a user chooses to use and a service provider chooses to make available to a user in a market space,” Friedberg said.
“I understand that the first amendment only applies to the government. But when the framers of the constitution wrote that, freedom of speech was something that took place in the town square… Where do people assemble today? Online. On these monopoly network services,” Sacks replied. “And to your point, couldn’t they go to some other site? Well, they did. They went to Parler. Guess what happened.”
“There’s an open web, Sacks,” Friedberg replied. “You don't need to go to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Google Play. I will also say that the platforms that made these decisions to ban these accounts and kick people off are not doing so under the demand of law. The standard is not a legal standard.... It is a moral or principled standard that is sitting above and beyond the legal standard they’re required to comply with. This is really scary, because at that point it becomes a subjective decision of who you kick off based on your interpretation of what they said.
“You nailed it one-fucking-thousand percent,” Palihapitiya agreed. “That is the exact issue. It’s not necessarily about free speech. It is that when you have an effectively quasi-governmental organization that gets to operate in the free market when it wants to, and operate like a quasi-governmental monopoly when it wants to, all of a sudden the power becomes in the shadows.”
Tech will be forever political
All of this is wrapped up neatly by a tweet from former venture Capitolist and writer Benedict Evans. “If you unsubscribed from my newsletter after I discussed Twitter banning Trump and AWS banning Parler because you “want to think about tech and ignore politics”, you’re going to hate the next 20 years. Tech is politics now, and geopolitics.”
There once was a time when tech companies like Uber or Twitter were occupied with questions like “How do we get funding?” or “How do we find product market fit?” Today, those questions have been supplanted by ones like “Should we ban the President of the United States?” or broader political and financial goals that led to events like the passing of Prop 22 last year. The answers they arrive at don't just change balance sheets, but change the fabric of our society.
The point being made by Palihapitiya, Evans and Friedberg is that the same people who once had to make those limited financial, business-minded decisions, are now the arbiters of the platforms by which democracy fails or succeeds — and most often fails. When Palihapitiya calls Twitter and Facebook “quasi-governmental” organizations, he is talking about the cultural Capitol these platforms hold as the primary platforms for mass cultural and political exchange — a position they were bound to reach eventually, but were perhaps propelled to by Trump’s constant posting over the last five years.
Twitter and Facebook have succeeded so thoroughly and so absolutely that they are now vulnerable to problems on a cosmic scale in comparison to the questions they faced in their college dorms when their first lines of code were being written.
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