Did Virginia Sen. Mark Warner Prompt The Alex Jones Ban?
Alex Jones and Infowars were mass banned by Google, Facebook, and Apple on Monday. The seemingly coordinated effort to censor Jones, the controversial owner of Infowars, a website often delving into conspiracy theories, sent shock and awe down the spines of those who value freedom of speech. [no_toc]
For the record and as an attempt to preface such a subject sour on multiple levels, Facebook, Google, and Apple are private companies. I know this and so do you. Arguing the point is wasteful energy at this juncture. No one’s accusing any of these corporate entities of breaking a law.
Additionally, this isn’t a diatribe that is intended to support Jones or his Infowars properties.
I don’t care about Alex Jones. I don’t care about his views or perspectives. Jones and Infowars are by no means an isolated case in my disinterest. The Internet is a big monster of freely flowing information that covers every aspect of life and universe. I don’t read or consider most of it, because mainly, its too much for my brain to take on.
I know how to ignore or bypass or unfollow. I’m able to filter out truth vs. untruth, I don’t need an algorithm for such things.
And this is where we hit the main point: I don’t want an algorithm censoring information from me no matter how unruly, irresponsible, unintelligent, mean, such information is deemed to be by an artificial computer-driven algorithm.
Let’s get our footing here before we go any further discussing the current state of freedom of speech in this, and potentially many future cases.
Virginia Senator Lambaste Big Tech Only Days Prior To Jones’ Ban
On June 30th, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who has never been shy in his disdain for large social media platforms and tech companies, crafted a letter of condemnation in regards to the tech powers that be.
Warner claims the paper, which condemns big tech companies, was crafted by his staff (that’s likely). In the letter, Warner voices concerns regarding “politically oriented misinformation” and “user privacy” and “promoting competition.”
The first point is reckless and open for abuse (we will get to that), the second point is reasonable though likely over-inflated (just stop putting all of your info into ads you don’t trust), and the third point has all the bells and whistles of good faith, less government politicking (if not for point 1, I’d be happy about point 3).
The letter ambitiously and egregiously seeks to regulate tech companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter) on issues regarding “privacy, competition, and public discourse.”
Its a perfect storm of contradicting points.
In other words, the government is mad that the government isn’t in control enough. The government, fresh off the heels of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate Hearing, smells chum in the water (I will get to that). The government realizes that it can utilize the public scorn over Facebook’s privacy drama and Zuckerberg’s own Senate Hearing testimony to assert more “healthy regulations,” thereby, giving the government more and more control.
And here’s how they do that (follow along, please)
The old days of the Internet were much different than the modern web. Today, websites are faster, cleaner, more sales oriented, display on phones, and don’t use numerous junky animated gifs.
But there is another rather notable and large philosophical change that’s much different today.
When the web first came to be in the late 1990s, the free for all of content and communications access had both a good and bad effect of increased liability. Websites “stole” images and used them in their content. People “copied” websites and articles and pitched it as their own information.
Additionally, online forums became sanctuaries for the “free exchange of content, images, and video.” And website owners realized the true power struggle in the way that liability could make or break communities.
Website owners wanted no user-managed content liability. In other words, if a website owner had a message board and a random member of that message board uploaded a stolen image or video, the website owner contended that they (the website owner) had no liability.
This was as strategic as it was reasonable (somewhat). Running an online community in a legal environment that pushed user content liability on the website owner made running the community outrageously difficult and expensive.
Monitoring a community for content meant paying employees to scan content, it meant spending time investigating content, it meant algorithmic filters being deployed (such things were not as advanced back in the early Internet days), and it meant taking full responsibility for user content.
Legal philosophy and precedent were too early to assume any position.
So many website owners, at the advice of their lawyers, took on what’s now considered an unheard of strategy. They performed little to no policing of content.
Why Did Website Owners Not Police Content In The Early Days?
Because if Coca-Cola took them to court due to a “defamatory user uploaded file” regarding the Coca-Cola brand, the website owner understood that part of Coca Cola’s litigation would involve past instances of user content control by the website owner.
Here’s an imaginary example of what I’m specifically saying:
Website Owner: “A user uploaded the photo, we don’t control what users upload.”
Coca-Cola: “I have an example from April 3rd, whereas you deleted a user’s post for posting an image of a dead deer that offended other users. I have an example of where your website banned a user for posting a scantily dressed woman’s photo.”
You can likely see exactly how this exchange ends in imaginary court. Not good for the website owner.
So website owners began policing the bare minimum, which was content that broke state or federal laws.
Zuckerberg’s Insane Desire To Control Content Is Chum In Internet Waters For Big Government
Maybe I’m being too hard on Zuckerberg, maybe the stress of being blamed for an election outcome created a monster within him. I don’t completely see that as being how things went south, but I have to note the possibility.
During Zuckerberg’s recent Senate Hearing, he consistently took all-encompassing and ambiguous control over the content posted by Facebook users.
“I agree we are responsible for the content [on Facebook].” He said during the hearing.
If massive censorship is to follow the Alex Jones banning, you can rest assured, the moment it started was the moment Zuckerberg recklessly took control of all the content posted on Facebook. Whether it was arrogance (definitely possible) or poor legal advisors (simply unimaginable), Zuckerberg’s assertions and confirmations of his role in the content posted on Facebook was chum in the water for government officials looking to seize control over the world’s largest portal of information exchange.
We reached out to Pittsburgh Civil Rights Attorney, Joe Pometto, for his thoughts on Zuckerberg’s assertation that he polices his users’ content. He believes that this opens the potential for lawsuits and a possible path for a Supreme Court showdown.
“In the earlier days of the internet, websites and social media platforms were hesitant to police or remove content. Often, they would only remove illegal content and only when absolutely necessary.
Recently, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg has expressed a greater willingness to police content based on factors other than the legality of the content itself. Other websites and social media platforms have followed suit, as Twitter’s ban of Alex Jones’ InfoWars shows.
However, Alex Jones’ immediately filed a lawsuit against Twitter arguing in the suit that Twitter is infringing on Alex Jones’ right to free speech expression in a public forum.
The fascinating part is that Jones’ lawsuit characterizes Twitter as a public forum. If the Courts begin to view social media platforms, and similar websites, as public forums, speech expressed on these sites may become protected under the Constitution. I would expect to see more and more lawsuits of this nature, as the social media giants become more active in policing content.
Litigation of this type may force the Supreme Court to step in and/or force Congress to pass laws regulating such sites. In the end, the social media giants attempts to control content may actually weaken their ability to do so, as legislative bodies and the courts end up making those decisions for them. Or it could strengthen them, depending on how the courts rule. It will be interesting to see exactly how this plays out over the next few years.”
Warner’s Letter Strategically Leverages Zuckerberg’s Admission Of Content Responsibility
Virginia Democrat Mark Warner June 30th letter is designed to take advantage of Zuckerberg’s admission that he controls the content. Now, government officials are entitled to challenge all content placed on Facebook’s newsfeed in every capacity. Facebook, due to Zuckerberg’s admission, must take the blame.
Therefore, as Warner and his staff clearly assert in the letter, the government must step in and monitor, fix, control, censor, Facebook’s content.
Zuckerberg’s mishap (yes, I’m declaring his content responsibility admission a mistake of magnificent proportions), doesn’t just do damage to Facebook, but also Apple, Google, Twitter, and any website in the world that would ever allow for the free exchange of information.
Zuckerberg, in his desire to save the world from “hate speech,” gave his keys and the keys of his equally powerful colleague’s businesses, to the government.
Warner’s Letter Uncomfortably Precedes Jones Banning
Now, the heart of the matter.
Did Warner’s letter serve as an act of intimidation to tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple? Was Jones a sacrificial lamb that these big tech companies can use to defend their internal abilities to censor unruly content?
The answer is – probably.
Jones is the Internet’s easiest scapegoat. His content, for the most part, is at its foundation, shock-value theatrics. Many of Jones’ followers have long maintained a position that Jones is merely an entertainer, less a journalist.
Jones is currently being sued by Sandy Hook school parents who seek their pound of flesh for Jones consistent proclamations that put forth Sandy Hook school shooting conspiracies. The lawsuit, which pulls at any reasonable thinking person’s heartstrings, also holds major free speech implications.
In other words, Jones was an easy lamb to sacrifice with the goal being the creation of the illusion of corporate responsibility.
“We don’t need the government, we got this,” is what Facebook and Google and Apple are saying (not in those exact words, but you get my point).
Big tech companies realize that in two months, critical midterm elections take place. The government realizes this as well. The government also realizes that big tech has lost almost all of its leverage and now operates from a futile and desperate position.
Will we see more desperate acts of online censorship?
Only time will tell, but most likely, nothing will be resolved easily or mandatorily.
feature Photo by Mark Warner
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.