Big Tech Censorship: A Debate Around Internet Free Speech

The Neeva Team on 07/15/21

In 2000, Google was just a search engine, Amazon was an online bookstore, and Mark Zuckerburg was a teenager—though, one without an iPod, because they didn’t exist yet. Two decades later, you’re probably reading this on a browser built by Apple or Google (which is now a verb), Jeff Bezos is the richest person alive, and if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s most populous.

Big Tech is more powerful than ever. Using the internet today inevitably means engaging with their products and services. Tech companies have a lot of control over what we say and share online. But what happens when so few set the rules of the web for so many?

What’s ‘Big Tech’?

Sometimes called the Big Four or GAFA, the world’s biggest tech companies are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Some also consider Microsoft and Twitter to be part of ‘Big Tech.’ All are headquartered in the US. Thanks to the globalization and digitization of the past few decades, they’ve become the largest and most dominant tech companies in their respective sectors.

Our relationship to Big Tech has changed drastically over the past ten years. In 2010, as the global financial crisis slowly subsided, US regulators took an optimistic view of Big Tech’s rapid growth. Silicon Valley was at the center of a flourishing tech ecosystem; quality smartphones, consumer electronics, free online services, and affordable ecommerce were signs that competitive markets were working. Their innovations grew intimately intertwined with our daily lives, and the more we adopted their tools, the richer and more powerful they got. By August 2020, Apple was the first publicly traded U.S. company to hit a $2 trillion market cap, doubling its value in just over two years.

Today, Big Tech holds a tight grip on online commerce, information and entertainment. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have grown much faster than the rest of the economy over the past decade and have recorded billions of dollars in profits. They did so by first dominating their respective businesses, then making acquisitions into new sectors to add revenue and outmaneuver smaller competitors. And while the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on the global economy, Big Tech prospered with a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion.

Many now say Big Tech is too big. Some call them superpowers. The New York Times’ John Herrman goes as far as to say that we “are but subjects on the surface of a planet they’ve fully colonized and terraformed.” And politicians and regulators are paying attention. During a 2020 congressional hearing, the leaders of the Big Four were grilled by both Democrats and Republicans for their antitrust practices. The committee's report recommends corrective action, including the possibility of breaking up the companies, accusing them of using their monopoly power not to innovate, but to eliminate their rivals. Lawmakers in Washington and the EU are contemplating fines, new rules on privacy and competition, as well as content moderation policies for tech companies.

What’s Big Tech censorship?

Big Tech censorship is the idea that major tech companies can have gatekeeper power over what we do on their platforms.

More than ever, we post, debate, promote, and critique our ideas online. Digital communication platforms—like Facebook or Twitter—act as modern-day public squares. But they don’t belong to the public. They’re built and run by tech companies, using their digital infrastructure.

Under pressure to reduce the spread of violent and exploitative content, social media companies began employing moderators to remove inappropriate material from their platforms. While pornography and hate speech are protected by the first amendment, public sentiment was that this content—along with content depicting graphic violence—does not belong in digital “public squares” like social media. Tech companies prohibit this content in their terms of service.

This sentiment also applied to content meant to incite violence. But this gets murky when a call to violence is more subtle—neither graphic nor explicit—but still results in violent activity. It gets even murkier when political figures are involved. Suddenly, one person’s moderation is another’s suppression.

The issue was brought to the fore after January 6, when a violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters, urged by the outgoing president to “stop the steal,” stormed the US Capitol. The next day, Facebook issued Trump an indefinite suspension. The day after that, Twitter, where Trump tweeted more than 25,000 times during his presidency, issued him a permanent suspension, and over the following week, barred more than 70,000 other users. Snapchat, Youtube, Twitch and other platforms followed, while Apple and Google cut Parler, a small social network popular with far-right users, from their app stores, and Amazon removed it from its cloud computing service, forcing the network offline. The tech companies claimed Trump and his supporters’ “incitement to violence” and “hate speech” violated their terms of service.

Some were relieved by Big Tech’s actions. Some even celebrated them, pointing to research showing that online misinformation had fallen after the president was deplatformed. Elsewhere the moves drew fierce backlash from conservatives and free speech activists, who argued that Big Tech’s selective enforcement suggests political motives, and that their power over the digital landscape had gone too far. The image of a few Silicon Valley tycoons deciding what we can say online has prompted many to raise the alarm on free speech and Big Tech censorship.

But more telling were the reactions from other prominent figures like Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who called the ban “problematic,” or Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who labeled it an “unacceptable act of censorship,” or perhaps most surprisingly, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who spoke of a “dangerous precedent.”

How does the first amendment apply to the internet?

In the US, the First Amendment says that Congress shall not pass a law bridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. But it doesn’t apply to private companies, like Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google.

A social media company's ability to moderate content isn’t limited by the First Amendment. A private company can stop you from saying what you want on their platform. Your freedom to submit an article to, say, The Washington Post, is as important as their freedom to not publish your words. That much is relatively clear.

What isn’t as clear is whether Big Tech companies, by banning users and posts, are exercising their rights to set editorial policy, or whether, given their immense power, they’re engaging in internet censorship in favour of certain interests. Amid this debate, Section 230, an infamous 25-year-old regulation that gives Big Tech a certain immunity, has fallen under a cloud of scrutiny.

What’s Section 230?

Since becoming law, Section 230 is sometimes described as a kind of First Amendment for the internet. It shields “interactive computer services” from liability for content posted by their users and for moderating or removing material they consider obscene or offensive, so long as it’s done “in good faith.” Section 230 is known for granting online platforms safe harbors from prosecution over what’s shared on their sites.

Section 230 is part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, enacted primarily in response to concerns about minors’ access to online pornography. At the time, the growing internet industry was getting mixed signals about what they could and couldn’t be held liable for. Section 230’s bipartisan writers understood that online platforms couldn’t oversee the potential volume of content on their websites. Internet companies, after all, weren’t like traditional publishers or broadcasters; the web was a new medium for free expression.

In the end, the Supreme Court struck down much of the Communications Decency Act on constitutional grounds, but Section 230 survived, and for its first twenty years, remained somewhat obscure. But in today’s digital age, Big Tech reigns supreme and Section 230 has vast consequences wherever online discourse takes place on platforms subject to American law. It gives billions of users across the globe access to content others create, and allows them to comment and interact without having moderators or algorithms review each post.

Some say that without Section 230, we wouldn't have today’s internet. Democrats generally argue that the law lets tech companies off the hook, especially when it comes to rooting out extremism. Republicans tend to say it lets tech companies get away with too much, with some claiming they’re out to do what those in government can’t under the First Amendment by discriminating against conservative content. Both President Biden and Trump have said they want to repeal Section 230.

But repealing Section 230 wouldn’t solve the problem—more comprehensive reform is needed. Many, including Mark Zuckerberg, are calling on legislators to improve Section 230, namely by defining the line between free speech and harmful content.

Florida’s Big Tech censorship bill, explained

Meanwhile, Florida is taking tech censorship matters into its own hands. In May, the state became the first to penalize tech companies for deplatforming politicians.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7072, which states that social media companies with at least 100 million users:

  • Can only suspend political candidates for 14 days, and will be fined up to $250,000, (depending if the candidate is running for local or state office) for every day the company is in violation.
  • Must publish their justifications for censorship and can’t censor “a journalistic enterprise based on the content of its publication or broadcast.”
  • Must notify their users of changes to their content moderation policies, preventing “Big Tech bureaucrats” from “moving the goalposts to silence viewpoints they don’t like.”

The law also allows Floridians “treated unfairly by Big Tech platforms” to sue companies in violation for monetary damages.

DeSantis, a Trump ally and a vocal critic of Big Tech, signaled his support for the motion in early February, soon after Trump was booted from social media. It’s unclear how the law, set to take effect on July 1, will affect Trump’s online presence. Critics question whether the bill is constitutional. When asked if the bill was intended to help Trump, DeSantis insisted it’s “for everyday Floridians.”

Are Big Tech monopolies bad for democracy?

The framers of the constitution couldn’t have predicted the unstoppable rise of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Never in the history of democracy has a handful of companies held such sway over the lives of so many.

Because they’re neither public square nor publisher, tech companies are able to play by both sets of rules. On the one hand, like a public square, they can’t be held accountable for what’s said on their platforms; on the other hand, like a publisher, they have the right to moderate content. And letting them exist in this middle ground has arguably allowed them to reach unprecedented scale and influence—to the point that we rely on their products and services to function.

In January, Australian officials demanded that Google pay news publishers for content it displays in its search results. The company responded by threatening to shut down its search engine in the country. It isn’t hard to imagine a similar scenario happening in the US.

While there’s no perfect consensus, there are growing calls—from across the political spectrum—for a better approach to dealing with freedom of speech online, one that doesn’t let Big Tech dictate fundamental civil liberties; one, ideally that doesn’t permit internet censorship by Silicon Valley tech giants. A new wave of startups is offering alternatives to Big Tech and their shortcomings on privacy, security, and free speech.

Luckily, as we’ve seen, the rise of Big Tech is relatively recent. We’re still in the early chapters of this story. There’s still time to make the rules that will shape the internet—and the world—of the future.

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