A Google engineer has resigned to protest the company’s complicity with the Chinese Communist Party to censor information Chinese citizens can see on the internet.
But it’s not just in China, and it’s not just Google.
The tech giants of Silicon Valley are hard at work trying to control the information Americans can access.
Those the internet overlords deem politically unreliable, deplorable if you will, are being banned from the internet – deplatformed, to use the au courant bloodless euphemism.
Following President Trump’s upset victory in 2016, top Google executives told triggered staffers the company would use its resources to stop the president’s populist-nationalist agenda from spreading.
Facebook has tens of thousands of “security” censors and throttles distribution of independent conservative news sources while boosting corporatist media outlets it approves.
So what can be done about these self-appointed promoters of sanitary speech?
Many conservative civil libertarians demand action to protect open political discourse.
But others, largely from the hardshell fundamentalist economic libertarian camp, insist that private companies are allowed to discriminate as they wish and government must not interfere. Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey have an absolute right to kick anyone out according to their personal whim.
Of course not, and we would all be rightly shocked and outraged if they did.
All rights have limits – your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins. Freedom of speech does not allow inciting to riot.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says private owners of establishments involved in public commerce – who sell, lease, or provide services to the public – must act fairly and in a nondiscriminatory manner to all comers.
Title II of the act states, “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Congress based the act on Congress’ constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, and the courts have subsequently upheld it. (Some find the commerce clause problematic, but that’s a separate discussion.) The act’s definition of commerce includes “communication among the several states.”
The Civil Rights Act may help us understand a way forward to deal with the Nurse Ratcheds and robber barons of Silicon Valley.
While the Civil Rights Act focused primarily on racial discrimination and segregation in restaurants, hotels, gas stations and movie theaters, the principle of nondiscrimination has been applied more broadly. For instance, the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees (ratified by the U.S.) grants protected status to those persecuted because of their political viewpoints.
What follows is a modest proposal, sketch, a rough outline. I leave it for greater legal minds to comment or discard.
An Internet Civil Rights Act would recognize the fact that online service providers, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and other online media companies, are engaged in interstate commerce. They sell and distribute ads and user information derived from users’ behavior (recommendations, comments, “likes” and shares), that impact interstate commerce. Users “among the several states” create the information the social media companies use in interstate commerce.
It would recognize that in our current Information Age, interstate commerce in information is as central to our economy as commerce in physical goods.
It would recognize that a company that provides access to information through the internet can be an “essential facility,” and fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory access to information for users is essential to commerce, the competition of ideas and society.
It would recognize that the internet and social media platforms are public gathering places, that freedom of assembly (association) extends to cyberspace and includes a user’s right to follow, share with and receive information from – associate with – those individuals they choose.
It would recognize that restricting the distribution of ideas based on their content is a restriction of interstate commerce and a violation of the freedom of association.
It would establish that all Americans are entitled to equal protection of the laws and full exercise of their First Amendment rights when they use the internet. Just as AirBnB cannot discriminate on the basis of race or sex, Facebook, Twitter and Google, under such a law, would be unable to discriminate on the basis of speech or political point of view.
An Internet Civil Rights Act would establish the First Amendment as the clear standard to help Jack Dorsey and his ilk figure out “what does healthy conversation look like,” as The Man with the Weird Beard so eloquently put it.