Last weekend saw tech giants Twitter and Facebook, including, bizarrely, Spotify, banning US President Donald Trump from the use of their platforms. This was followed by bans imposed on certain conservative personalities or substantial reductions in their reach or followers.
Immediately thereafter, as if in tandem, Apple, Google, and Amazon banned Twitter rival Parler, under the ostensible reason it failed to come up with a “moderation” policy (i.e., the monitoring and regulation of views posted in its page).
But the point of Parler was precisely to abstain from the regulation of views. It is this — the allowing of conservatives to air their views — that made Parler a target. One sees this in its labeling by CNN as “right wing,” which is ridiculous because the identity and nature of Parler is rooted in its neutrality.
There is something reprehensible in seeing multinational social media companies abuse their wealth and dominance to decide what everybody else can read, write, view, or hear. An argument made by liberal progressives is to twist the conservative position on private property: since Facebook and Twitter are private companies, they should be free to do what they want. In short, let market forces rule. But this assertion lacks any real substance.
Unlike most private businesses, social media (particularly in the US) are allowed certain privileges unavailable to ordinary companies (e.g. Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery that liberal progressives keep forcing to make cakes depicting gay “marriage”). The most prominent of these privileges is the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230, which provides that: “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.”
Thus, unlike news media for example, social media providers are immune from any liability for allowing the posting by various users of any views, video, audio, or document. The rationale, ironically, is to encourage greater freedom of expression and information. But if Twitter, Facebook and others discriminate in what they allow to be posted, they are essentially editorializing and hence abusing the protection given by S.230.
Furthermore, the scale, reach, and power of these social media companies is hardly similar to a mere private bakery such as Masterpiece Cakeshop. One can simply go to another baker or even make the cake yourself celebrating your particular ideology. This is not possible vis-a-vis social media companies, especially if they are acting in concert.
In the Philippines, the ability of media companies to commit discrimination is gratifyingly limited by law. In the first place, RA 10175 (Cybercrime Prevention Act) already punishes criminal online acts, hence minimizing the need for media companies to act unilaterally (and discriminatorily).
Furthermore, Article 32 of the Civil Code renders liable any “public officer or employee, or any private individual, who directly or indirectly obstructs, defeats, violates or in any manner impedes or impairs” freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to equal protection of laws.
For any social or news media company that acts discriminately, there’s also RA 10667 (Philippine Competition Act): “Section 15. Abuse of Dominant Position. It shall be prohibited for one or more entities to abuse their dominant position by engaging in conduct that would substantially prevent, restrict or lessen competition: xxx (d) Setting prices or other terms or conditions that discriminate unreasonably between customers or sellers of the same goods or services, where such customers or sellers are contemporaneously trading on similar terms and conditions, where the effect may be to lessen competition substantially.”
For broadcast companies specifically, the terms of franchise normally include provisions encouraging the airing of varying views. For example, the law renewing GMA’s franchise (RA 10925) requires that: “The grantee shall… provide at all times sound and balanced programming; promote public participation; assist in the functions of public information and education; conform to the ethics of honest enterprise; promote audience sensibility and empowerment …”
Finally, to allow tech and media giants the ability to censor and discriminate is simply bad policy. A study finds that “policing within a single platform (such as Facebook) can make matters worse, and will eventually generate global ‘dark pools’ in which online hate will flourish. We observe the current hate network rapidly rewiring and self-repairing at the micro level when attacked, in a way that mimics the formation of covalent bonds in chemistry.” (“Hidden resilience and adaptive dynamics of the global online hate ecology.” N. F. Johnson , et al., published in Nature, August 2019)
In other words, “banning bad content is actually socially riskier over the long term for our entire culture.” That’s according to alternative social network Minds.com CEO Bill Ottman. In the end, he says, “freedom is the best policy.”
It’s also “the policy that results in the least harm.” (“Social Censorship: Should Social Media’s Policy Be Free Speech?,” Forbes, October 2020)
Indeed, anybody discriminating just to violate others’ inherent natural rights are really just twats.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.