January 29, 2021
By Niall Ferguson • The Spectator
‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,’ George Orwell famously observed. He was talking not about everyday life but about politics, where it is ‘quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously’. The examples he gave in his 1946 essay included the paradox that ‘for years before the war, nearly all enlightened people were in favour of standing up to Germany: the majority of them were also against having enough armaments to make such a stand effective’.
Last week provided a near-perfect analogy. For years before the 2020 election, nearly all American conservatives were in favour of standing up to big tech: the majority of them were also against changing the laws and regulations enough to make such a stand effective. The difference is that, unlike the German threat, which was geographically remote, the threat from Silicon Valley was literally in front of our noses, day and night: on our mobile phones, our tablets and our laptops.
Writing in this magazine more than three years ago, I warned of a coming collision between Donald Trump and Silicon Valley. ‘Social media helped Donald Trump take the White House,’ I wrote. ‘Silicon Valley won’t let it happen again.’ The conclusion of my book The Square and the Tower was that the new online network platforms represented a new kind of power that posed a fundamental challenge to the traditional hierarchical power of the state.
By the network platforms, I mean Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple, or FATGA for short — companies that have established a dominance over the public sphere not seen since the heyday of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. FATGA had humble enough origins in garages and dorm rooms. As recently as 2008, not one of them could be found among the world’s largest companies by market capitalisation. Today, they occupy first, third, fourth and fifth places in the market cap league table, just above their Chinese counterparts, Tencent and Alibaba.
What happened was that the network platforms turned the originally decentralised worldwide web into an oligarchically organised and hierarchical public sphere from which they made money and to which they controlled access. That the original, superficially libertarian inclinations of these companies’ founders would rapidly crumble under political pressure from the left was also perfectly obvious, if one bothered to look a little beyond one’s proboscis.
Following the violent far-right rally at Charlottesville in August 2017, Matthew Prince, chief executive of the internet service provider Cloudflare, described how he had responded: ‘Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet.’ On the basis that ‘the people behind the [white supremacist magazine] Daily Stormer are assholes’, he denied their website access to the internet. ‘No one should have that power,’ he admitted. ‘We need to have a discussion around this with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and … Mark [Zuckerberg] shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.’
But that discussion had barely begun in 2017. Indeed, many Republicans at that time still believed the notion that FATGA were champions of the free market that required only the lightest regulation. They know better now. After last year’s election Twitter attached health warnings to Trump’s tweets when he claimed that he had in fact beaten Joe Biden. Then, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, Twitter and Facebook began shutting down multiple accounts — including that of the President himself, now ‘permanently suspended’ from tweeting. When Trump loyalists declared their intention to move their conversations from Twitter to rival Parler — in effect, Twitter with minimal content moderation — Google and Apple deleted Parler from their app stores. Then Amazon kicked Parler off its ‘cloud’ service, effectively deleting it from the internet altogether. It was a stunning demonstration of power.
It is only a slight overstatement to say that, while the mob’s coup against Congress ignominiously failed, big tech’s coup against Trump triumphantly succeeded. It is not merely that Trump has been abruptly denied access to the channels he has used throughout his presidency to communicate with voters. It is the fact that he is being excluded from a domain the courts have for some time recognised as a public forum.
Various lawsuits over the years have conferred on big tech an unusual status: a public good, held in private hands. In 2018 the Southern District of New York ruled that the right to reply to Trump’s tweets is protected ‘under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court’. So it was wrong for the President to ‘block’ people — i.e. stop them reading his tweets — because they were critical of him. Censoring Twitter users ‘because of their expressed political views’ represents ‘viewpoint discrimination [that] violates the First Amendment’.
In Packingham vs North Carolina (2017), Justice Anthony Kennedy likened internet platforms to ‘the modern public square’, arguing that it was therefore unconstitutional to prevent sex offenders from accessing, and expressing opinions on, social network platforms. ‘While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views,’ Justice Kennedy wrote, ‘today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace —the “vast democratic forums of the internet” in general … and social media in particular.’
In other words, as President of the United States, Trump could not block Twitter users from seeing his tweets, but Twitter is apparently within its rights to delete the President’s account altogether. Sex offenders have a right of access to online social networks; but the President does not. These companies have a dominance not seen since the heyday of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church
This is not to condone Trump’s increasingly deranged attempts to overturn November’s election result. Before last week’s riots, he egged on the mob; he later said he ‘loved’ them, despite what they had done. Nor is there any denying that a number of Trump’s most fervent supporters pose a threat of further violence. Considering the bombs and firearms some of them brought to Washington, the marvel is how few people lost their lives during the occupation of the Capitol.
Yet the correct response to that threat is not to delegate to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and their peers the power to remove from the public square anyone they deem to be sympathetic to insurrection or otherwise suspect. The correct response is for the FBI and the relevant police departments to pursue any would-be Trumpist terrorists, just as they have quite successfully pursued would-be Islamist terrorists over the past two decades.
The key to understanding what has happened lies in an obscure piece of legislation, almost a quarter of a century old, enacted after a New York court held online service provider Prodigy liable for a user’s defamatory posts. Congress then stepped in with the 1996 Telecommunications Act and in particular Section 230, which was written to encourage nascent firms to protect users and prevent illegal activity without incurring massive content management costs. It states: “1. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.2. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of … any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.
In essence, Section 230 gives websites immunity from liability for what their users post if it is in any way harmful, but also entitles websites to take down with equal impunity any content that they don’t like the look of. The surely unintended result of this legislation, drafted for a fledgling internet, is that some of the biggest companies in the world enjoy a protection reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Try to hold them responsible as publishers, and they will say they are platforms. Demand access to their platforms and they will insist that they are publishers.
This might have been a tolerable state of affairs if America’s network platforms had been subject to something like the old Fairness Doctrine, which required the big three terrestrial TV networks to give airtime to opposing views. But that was something the Republican party killed off in the 1980s, seeing the potential of allowing more slanted coverage on cable news. What goes around comes around. The network platforms long ago abandoned any pretence of being neutral. Even before Charlottesville, their senior executives and many of their employees had made it clear that they were appalled by Trump’s election victory (especially as both Facebook and Twitter had facilitated it). Increasingly, they interpreted the words ‘otherwise objectionable’ in Section 230 to mean ‘objectionable to liberals’.
Throughout the summer of last year, numerous supporters of Black Lives Matter used social media, as well as mainstream liberal media, to express their support for protests that in many places escalated into violence and destruction considerably worse than occurred in the Capitol last week. One looked in vain for health warnings, much less account suspensions, though Facebook says it has removed accounts that promote violence.
Compare, for example, the language Trump used in his 6 January speech and the language Kamala Harris used in support of BLM on Stephen Colbert’s show on 18 June. Neither explicitly condoned violence. Trump exhorted the crowd to march to the Capitol, but he told them to ‘peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard’. Harris condemned ‘looting and… acts of violence’, but said of the BLM protestors: ‘They’re not going to stop. They’re not. This is a movement. I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware. Because they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop before election day in November, and they are not going to stop after election day. And everyone should take note of that on both levels.’ What exactly was the significance of that ‘beware’?
Earlier, on 1 June, Harris had used Twitter to solicit donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posted bail for people charged with rioting in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. It would be easy to cite other examples. ‘Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,’ Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times told CBS in early June, at a time when multiple cities were being swept by arson and vandalism. Her Twitter account is still going strong.
The double standard was equally apparent when the New York Post broke the story of Biden’s son Hunter’s dubious business dealings in China. Both Twitter and Facebook immediately prevented users from posting links to the article — something they had never done with stories damaging to Trump.
You don’t need to be a Trump supporter to find all this alarming. Conservatives of many different stripes — and indeed some bemused liberals — have experienced the new censorship for themselves, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened tech companies to police content more overtly. In the UK, TalkRadio briefly vanished from YouTube for airing anti–lockdown views that violated the company’s ‘community guidelines’. A recording of Lionel Shriver reading one of her Spectator columns on the pandemic was taken down for similar reasons. Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, two Oxford academics, fell foul of Facebook’s censors when they wrote for this magazine about a briefly controversial paper on the efficacy of masks in Denmark.
You might think that FATGA have finally gone too far with their fatwa against a sitting president of the United States. You might think a red line really has been crossed when both Alexei Navalny and Angela Merkel express disquiet at big tech’s overreach. But no. To an extent that is remarkable, American liberals have mostly welcomed (and in some cases encouraged) this surge of censorship — with the honourable exception of the American Civil Liberties Union.
True, during last year’s campaign the Biden team occasionally talked tough, especially about Facebook. However, it is increasingly clear that the most big tech has to fear from the Biden-Harris administration is protracted antitrust actions focused on their alleged undermining of competition which, if history is any guide, will likely end with whimpers rather than bangs. Either way, the issue of censorship will not be addressed by antitrust lawsuits.
It is tempting to complain that Democrats are hypocrites — that they would be screaming blue murder if the boot were on the other foot and it was Kamala Harris whose Twitter account had been cancelled. But if that were the case, how many Republicans would now be complaining? Not many. No, the correct conclusion to be drawn is that the Republicans had their chance to address the problem of over-mighty big tech and completely flunked it.
Only too late did they realise that Section 230 was Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. Only too late did they begin drafting legislation to repeal or modify it. Only too late did Section 230 start to feature in Trump’s speeches. Even now it seems to me that very few Republicans really understand that, by itself, repealing 230 would not have sufficed. Without some kind of First Amendment for the internet, repeal would probably just have restricted free speech further.
As Orwell rightly observed, ‘we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.’
Those words sum up quite a lot that has gone on inside the Republican party over the past four years. There it was, right in front of their noses: Trump would lead the party to defeat. And he would behave in the most discreditable way when beaten. Those things were predictable. But what was also foreseeable was that FATGA — the ‘new governors’, as a 2018 Harvard Law Review article called them — would be the true victors of the 2020 election.
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