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Bias At Tech Companies Hurts Americans More Than You Think


So regarding this line from Peter Suderman’s piece, critiquing Sen. Josh Hawley and Sohrab Ahmari, titled “The Moral Scolds of the New Illiberal Right Are Coming For Your Internet”: “A private company, like Facebook or Twitter, suspending an account or deleting a post is no more censorship than a bar owner kicking out an unwelcome patron is censorship.”

That’s a particularly libertarian perspective. But is that really how people think about and define censorship? Or is that an uncommon definition at odds with one more commonly held by American citizens?

We have a current example relevant to this question from yesterday in the knitting site crackdown which will permanently ban any accounts posting content in support of Trump or his administration (as representing hate speech and endorsement of white supremacy).

Now, this may not seem like a big deal. But if you’re a mom in Wyoming who’s been making money off of selling your knitted projects for more than a decade – as one of our writers at The Federalist is – does anyone honestly think they don’t view that as censorship? That kids or family don’t view this as grandma getting censored just because of her support of one of the major political parties?

I doubt a narrow definition of censorship which is limited solely to governmental activity sounds that believable to most people. Of course it’s not a First Amendment violation; these are private businesses. But it is pretty obviously a form of market-based censorship: you can’t post on our marketplace if you think X or your product is perceived as supporting X. That view is a lot more common than the narrow “only the government can censor” view.

(I’ve always called it “market based censorship” because there isn’t any natural right to access these markets, but I’m open to a different term. It’s the equivalent of banning a book. You can still print it at Kinkos or post it on your own website – assuming your server isn’t targeted – but you won’t get access to Amazon, book stores, etc.)

An obvious comparable situation would be: If you oppose gay marriage, you can’t advertise your business on Google. That would, by the uncommon definition, not be censorship. I doubt very much the business owners would agree.

It seems to me there’s an obvious cultural difference between barring the disruptive and unsavory people from a bar and expanding that definition to ban people from the marketplace, especially people who paid money for years to promote their shingle and to boost their content, just because they happen to support a president, any president. Banning all political content is one thing – banning only content that supports the existing POTUS and permanently banning those who back him or her is an explicitly partisan act. That’s true whether it’s Obama or Trump.

We’ve always counted on market forces to outweigh ideological forces. Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” apocryphal quote is still accurate on some level. But now companies are intentionally finding it in their interest to take a different stance, and not just as a marketing ploy.

We should also recognize just how much the collapse of discredited American institutions that have always been at the center of adjudicating our differences means that such matters are now adjudicated in a corporatist environment that is markedly dystopian when it comes to dictating democratic society’s moral common ground. Who will inform our thought processes on the legitimacy of the transgender agenda? Why, Budweiser, of course! Who will tell us what to think of Planned Parenthood? The Tyrell Corporation has the answers!

That’s not good. It’s not what these companies set out to be. But it is the role they are now increasingly expected to play.

It’s one thing culturally when it’s the local bar that won’t serve a Trump supporter – you cross the street to the other bar. It’s another when the biggest marketplaces in the country and the world shut down your ability to market your business or make an income. The Trump supporting portion of 7 million knitting fans can shift around; but Etsy, which is in the same space on a much larger scale, has 54 million members. If major internet marketplaces ban Republicans, does anyone honestly think that Republicans won’t view that as censorship? If the only answer is going to be: “tough, go start your own marketplace, maybe don’t support a major party” – does anyone expect that to satisfy Republican voters?

The particularly destructive aspect of this from my perspective is not the “deplatforming” of political speech, but the deplatforming of totally legitimate business activity. I don’t really care (other than being irritated) if as a primarily political entity you get permabanned from Twitter or Facebook for supporting the president. I care more if your business gets hosed from a market – where you spent a bunch of money to access it and build your customer base – entirely because of your political beliefs.

The Live Action bans of today, from Pinterest, Youtube, Twitter, etc. are certainly bad. But in doing so, big tech is banning or shutting down an explicitly political statement, an entity that exists to further its political agenda. Private businesses and small business owners don’t exist for that purpose (with rare exceptions). When you start banning people who are normal citizens, who are not intentionally in the political game, just because of their political views, it strikes me as crossing a line we have not historically done as a country.

Free speech is a natural right before it is a law. We risk losing something valuable as that right is increasingly rejected in ways which, while lawful, still violate the rights people believe they have to express themselves while still being considered upstanding citizens, and treated as such. If communities want to ban the Trump signup table from the farmer’s market, on some level it’s not as bad as banning the pickle seller who happens to have a Trump sticker on his car. A future in which Americans narc on their business competition to get them permabanned from a marketplace is the most pathetic late stage capitalism version of the Cultural Revolution I can imagine. But that possibility seems increasingly real.