Tech platforms foray into uncharted waters

Political and speech bans put tech companies in a very difficult spot

Many students have reached out to hear my opinion about the bans of political figures such as Donald Trump from tech platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and others. Although this is not something we generally cover at Innovalab Weekly, the importance of these actions can not be understated. First, let's understand the current public discussion.

Conservatives allege the tech platforms can not limit free speech online as per the United States Constitution, specifically the first amendment. They allege political bias and censorship of conservative voices as most tech companies lean liberal.

This is actually what the first amendment originally says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Liberals and independents argue the first amendment applies only to the government, citing as evidence past decisions of the Supreme Court. Therefore only the government can censor or restrict speech. Using this rationale, private companies are obviously not part of the government and can refuse service to anyone they want.

For instance, a restaurant can boot you out because you're annoying other customers. Or Twitter and Facebook can ban you for not following their complicated terms of service which include rules such as inciting violence, terrorism, posting adult content, harassing others, etc.

As anyone can already infer, the subject is much more nuanced and complicated and also full of contradictions. I am not qualified to lecture about constitutional law in this space neither politics, but I want to touch on the consequences of these decisions made by tech companies, no matter on which side you are.

#1 - The Paradox of Tolerance

The first subject I want to touch is more philosophical. Should a free society tolerate intolerant ideologies that, when in power, will definitely suppress tolerant voices? The cartoon below explains very well this paradox of tolerance, used by ideologies such as Nazism, Fascism, and Communism in the past to suppress free speech. The argument is in a book written by British philosopher Karl Popper published in 1945.

It is fair to say the majority of us agree with the conclusions above. The big question here is what constitutes an intolerant ideology in free societies and who is responsible for defining it.

Should it be the president or prime minister, the congress, the judiciary, an independent regulator, the UN, tech companies, the press, a majority of citizens? Food for thought.

#2 - Regulation

Social networks and tech companies are not regulated by any government body. However, we can make a case they are as prevalent and useful as utilities or public concessions. It is weird that TV stations, telecoms, electricity companies, or even airlines are heavily regulated but tech companies are not.

As the US government does not have a public social network or platform online, therefore our dependence on Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and others has become too big to ignore. Technology companies have become de facto arbiters of free speech in the online world, even though they allege to be only distributors of information such as newspapers.

The danger here is to leave private companies, which business models are mostly rewarded by online engagement, to define what is true or not or which behaviors are to be accepted online. Although I personally think the recent bans are justified on grounds of national security, it may not be the case in the next ban or censored content.

This is a very thin line that has already been crossed and the genie is out of the bottle.

#3 - Jurisdiction

For several reasons that we won't discuss here, all of the giant tech companies that influence the online discourse (outside China) are based out of California and Washington state; mostly are in Silicon Valley. By any metrics, it is clear the concentration of power in the hands of a couple dozen founders and executives is a very bad idea. Today they seem to be well-intentioned and responsible folks, but we are not sure what may happen tomorrow.

More importantly, these folks living in a rich part of California have disproportionate power to influence world affairs. They can elect politicians if they want, start wars or wreak havoc in any country or region at any given time.

Therefore, it seems urgent to create a sort of Internet constitution or multilateral organism that can regulate what they can or can not do online. This is a very complex discussion as it puts capitalism, individualism, the rule of law, and the sovereignty of nations in conflict with each other.

#4 - Decentralized platforms

Many libertarians, anarchists, liberals, and conservatives think the solution might lie on decentralized and anonymous platforms such as blockchain, which powers Bitcoin and Ethereum. In this case, no one would have absolute power and the decisions could be shared by a simple majority or be done algorithmically.

The question is to understand if democracy or a kind of benevolent autocracy would be the preferred systems to rely on in order to make important decisions that will reverberate through the world.

Although tech supremacy is real and potentially dangerous, I am confident a new generation of professionals will find the right balance to this problem. We need fresh ideas and new paradigms.

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