Recently, millions of supporters of Twitter reportedly left that company due to its continued censoring of viewpoints and the permanent banning of President Donald Trump. Many went to the more open forum offered by Parler — making it the number one item on Apple’s App store. Apple, Google, and other companies then moved to cut off Parler, which has now been shutdown. In so doing, these companies eliminate any alternative to their own controlled platforms. It is a major threat to free speech. Yet, the silence of academic and many free speech advocates is striking and chilling.
Apple issued a statement that “We have always supported diverse points of view being represented on the App Store, but there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity.” So Parler can operate only if Apple and Google are satisfied that it is engaging in the same controversial policies of censorship. Parler is based on the original concept of the Internet as an open forum for free speech.
I admittedly know little about Parler, but it does not matter beyond the fact that this is an alternative forum for free speech. I am an unabashed Internet originalist. I have long opposed the calls for censorship under the pretense of creating “an honest Internet.” We have been discussing how writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. The erosion of free speech has been radically accelerated by the Big Tech and social media companies. The level of censorship and viewpoint regulation has raised questions of a new type of state media where companies advance an ideological agenda with political allies.
As I have previously written, we are witnessing the death of free speech on the Internet. What is particularly concerning is the common evasion used by academics and reporters that this is not really a free speech issue because these are private companies. The First Amendment is designed to address government restrictions on free speech. As a private entity, Twitter is not the subject of that amendment. However, private companies can still destroy free speech through private censorship. It is called the “Little Brother problem.” President Trump can be chastised for converting a “Little Brother” into a “Big Brother” problem. However, that does alter the fundamental threat to free speech. This is the denial of free speech, a principle that goes beyond the First Amendment. Indeed, some of us view free speech as a human right.
Consider racial or gender discrimination. It would be wrong regardless if federal law only banned such discrimination by the government. The same is true for free speech. The First Amendment is limited to government censorship, but free speech is not limited in the same way. Those of us who believe in free speech as a human right believe that it is morally wrong to deny it as either a private or governmental entity. That does not mean that there are not differences between governmental and private actions. For example, companies may control free speech in the workplaces. They have a recognized right of free speech. However, the social media companies were created as forums for speech. Indeed, they sought immunity on the false claim that they were not making editorial decisions or engaging viewpoint regulation. No one is saying that these companies are breaking the law in denying free speech. We are saying that they are denying free speech as companies offering speech platforms.
If Pelosi demanded that Verizon or Sprint interrupt calls to stop people saying false or misleading things, the public would be outraged. Twitter serves the same communicative function between consenting parties; it simply allows thousands of people to participate in such digital exchanges. Those people do not sign up to exchange thoughts only to have Dorsey or some other internet overlord monitor their conversations and “protect” them from errant or harmful thoughts.
Much of our free speech today occurs on private sites like Twitter and Facebook. The Democrats want private companies to censor or label statements deemed misleading. Such a system would evade First Amendment conflict but it would have an even greater likely impact on free speech than direct government monitoring.