If you’ve been paying attention to the tech world for the past several years, you know there’s been a bubbling issue considered by politicians, journalists, and tech consumers alike: a troubling rise in tech censorship and uncertainty over how to respond to it.
To be clear, tech censorship is a complex issue that requires a nuanced discussion. There are no clear answers on whether tech censorship is truly destructive, or what should be done about it – and this article will not be taking a political stance.
However, whether you’re a startup entrepreneur, an industry professional, or just a tech consumer trying to make the best decisions for you and your family, it pays to know more about what’s going on.
The Central Tech Censorship Issue
There are certain countries that have major, life-altering tech censorship problems. In China, for example, many types of content (including criticisms of the government) are outright banned and filtered out of search results.
What we’ve been seeing in the United States is much tamer by comparison, but it is concerning.
Right now, there are a few dozen massive tech platforms that control what we see online, to some extent. Google, for example, is by far the most popular search engine in the world, responsible for handling billions of searches every day and displaying results that list webpages matching those user queries. While Google’s algorithm works mostly automatically, it wouldn’t take much for an employee to make a manual change or tweak the algorithm slightly to adjust results.
In some contexts, this is almost universally viewed as acceptable. Google has had a longstanding and transparent motivation to delist certain websites from its search results based on those sites’ violations of Google’s terms of service. For example, websites that promote or allow content piracy are essentially blacklisted.
But other companies are taking more controversial, debatable actions. For example, Twitter and other social media sites have intentionally removed user posts and comments if they happen to contain certain phrases, or if they feature incorrect information. Controversial political commentators have been completely removed from a wide variety of platforms in one fell swoop, and certain opinions have been forcibly removed from discussion.
What’s the Problem?
What exactly is the problem here?
On some level, it’s not especially concerning to see a controversial, inflammatory, chronically lying public figure get removed from a platform where their primary goal is recruiting toxic followers. On another level, there’s a lot at stake in a maneuver like this.
- Power and control. There aren’t many big tech companies. If you want to post on social media and reach a sizable audience, there are fewer than a dozen options. If you want to build a website, there are only a handful of hosting companies and website builders to choose from. If one or a few of these companies decide that your voice isn’t appropriate for others to hear, they can easily shut you out. On a large scale, this gives tech companies the power to influence public opinion; they can control the narrative surrounding things like public health crises and major elections. With a couple of tactical moves, such as removing a candidate from a platform or banning the mention of a certain news topic, a platform could have a dramatic impact on the outcome of an election.
- Polarization and extremism. It’s arguable that these moves also contribute to political extremism. When one candidate and their followers are banned or silenced on a given platform, they don’t disappear – in fact, they often become galvanized, seeing themselves as martyrs whose mission is of the utmost importance. When they find a new platform in which to gather, they will become further isolated and harder to reach. Meanwhile, much of the general public won’t even know that people with this controversial opinion exist.
- Fragmentation of access. Most would agree that access to social media platforms, search engines, and other high-visibility tech tools leads to greater knowledge, greater awareness of current events, and more connections to others. Limiting access to these tech tools can be detrimental; if a person has less access to news and information, they’re going to be at a considerable disadvantage in many areas of life.
- Collaboration. These matters are often made worse by the fact that big tech companies have the power (and inclination) to collaborate with each other. Overnight, a coalition of tech companies can decide to ban a person (or a topic) at the same time, leaving no refuge for people who have deemed controversial.
Recent Legal Action
Some politicians have proposed taking action against tech censorship as a way to preserve democracy and increase the visibility of political candidates. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is currently backing House Bill 7013, which outlines a plan for penalizing social media sites that block or silence political candidates in Florida. The bill also strives to give individual users the power to opt out of certain algorithms and choices from big tech companies.
As of the time of this article’s writing, the bill is being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee. Its fate may be a hint of how future federal legislation may fare.
What are the options ahead of us?
- Do nothing. First, we could do nothing. Social media companies are private companies that, arguably, should be free to approve or deny access to any user and/or control the content featured on those platforms. We don’t bat an eye if a restaurant owner kicks someone out for being inflammatory or rude; why should we force tech companies to serve any and all users? At the very least, we should acknowledge that social media bans and limitations aren’t, as some may suggest, an infringement on free speech as protected under the First Amendment.
- Empower users to push for change. We could also encourage social media and search users to demand more from the companies they patronize on a daily basis. Deleting your account in solidarity or signing a petition for change could lead to grassroots momentum substantial enough to get these companies to change their policies.
- Pass a law. The other option is to pass some kind of legislation that dictates the way that tech companies can do business. But this opens the door to a number of other complex problems. For example, who gets to decide what constitutes a “big tech” company? Would this legislation limit the entry of new competition? Could this result in a kind of coalition between big tech and the government, resulting in even more centralized control?
Platforms or Publishers?
One of the central philosophical issues in this debate is whether social media companies (and other big tech companies) should be considered platforms or publishers.
If these companies are platforms, they’re not necessarily responsible for the content posted by their users. They only exist as a third-party tool where people can post content and exchange comments with each other as they see fit.
If these companies are publishers, they exercise a degree of control over what gets posted and how; they can use their authority to ban certain types of content, ban certain users, and otherwise control the flow of information.
If companies recognize themselves as platforms, they’re freed from responsibility for illegal content – but they don’t get to exercise power over what gets published. If they recognize themselves as publishers, they can control messages however they want, the same as any publisher – but they must take responsibility for anything damaging that gets through their filter.
In reality, most of us can likely agree that big tech companies occupy a kind of awkward middle ground. We expect them to remove some types of blatantly illegal content, but we don’t want them to dictate or control our political discussions. We want to have unlimited access to them so we can have ample information, but we have few reservations against the banning of certain other users.
It’s a complex set of considerations for an industry that’s still in its infancy. We need to remain open minded and diligent in our discussions and debates on this topic – and aware of the true power that big tech companies collectively wield.