Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech

Alex Jones with fans. Photo (cc) 2006 by Nick Mollberg.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Alex Jones is the sort of dangerous crank that freedom of speech was designed to protect. When the late Anthony Lewis wrote his “biography” of the First Amendment, he titled it “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” We don’t need constitutional protections to report on the church picnic. We need them to make sure that the most loathsome among us are allowed to spread conspiracy theories, spout vile insults, and stage outrageous demonstrations of hatred and prejudice.

And no, Jones is not in danger of losing his First Amendment rights. The government has not attempted to silence him. His website, InfoWars, continues to be a popular stop for those on the extreme right. He is facing a lawsuit from several of the Sandy Hook families, whom he had cruelly accused of staging an elaborate hoax. But that, too, is part of the First Amendment.

The problem is that Jones illustrates perfectly a dilemma that some of us have been warning about for years: the privatization of free speech. As you may know, Jones in recent months has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Last Friday he was cut off by PayPal as well. He’s going to need to find another way for his customers to pay him for those InfoWars Life Super Male Vitality supplements.

No one seriously questions the right of the tech platforms to banish Jones to the far corners of the internet. These services are owned by giant corporations that became fabulously wealthy (Facebook) or at least marginally profitable (Twitter) by offering their customers a controlled experience. Algorithms determine what you are most likely to see, especially on Facebook. Their policies prohibit nudity (usually), profanity (sometimes), copyright violations, and — especially as the manipulation of the 2016 election becomes clear — fake news aimed at swaying public opinion.

This would all be fine except that the platforms — and Facebook in particular — have become our new civic commons. As Josh Marshall, the founder and editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo wrote recently, “To a real extent, the places you can exercise your speech these days are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. That is really the heart of the problem. A big part of the public square has been gobbled up by closed systems: Facebook especially, but also Google’s YouTube, Twitter, et al.”

Now, as I said, no one is threatening Jones’ ability to reach millions of people through his website, although the weight of his legal problems might put him out of business. (Which would be fine with me.) If need be, he could host his site in another country, or from a server in his basement. But, these days, the platforms are how we extend our reach beyond the relatively small number of people who make the effort to seek us out. Early indications are that traffic to InfoWars dropped by half following Jones’ disappearance from Facebook. Again, that’s fine; Facebook, far from doing anything wrong, is acting responsibly. But with some 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook simply has too much power and influence to be trusted as a conservator of the First Amendment.

As Micah Sifry, who writes about the intersection of technology and civic life, put it in The New Republic, Facebook has usurped our initial hopes that the internet would spark a “civic renaissance” by democratizing information and giving everyone a voice:

With 68 percent of Americans currently using Facebook, it has become the nation’s de facto digital public square, at least in part because the country’s political leaders lacked the civic imagination to insist on a public alternative. With their tacit approval, Facebook built a giant garden for its users, walled off from the open internet. And then, taking advantage of its popularity, Facebook started copying and replacing older public forms of civic engagement with new ones that only live inside its platform.

There is nothing new about this, and in some respects it predates technology. In 2003 I bestowed a New England Muzzle Award (then hosted by The Boston Phoenix, now by WGBH News) upon a mall in the almost-New England suburbs of Albany, New York, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing an antiwar T-shirt. Shopping centers have essentially become the new village square, except that they’re geared toward commerce rather than civic life. In 2017, I awarded Muzzles to YouTube (owned by Google) for suppressing a pro-Israel video by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and to Instagram (owned by Facebook) for deleting a photo of a nude painting posted by the Museum of Fine Arts. Technology companies have become so powerful that they need to take their First Amendment responsibilities seriously.

But the platforms are not common carriers like telephone companies, which are obligated to carry any calls and data that come their way. Nor are they the internet itself, although there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the possibility of censorship now that President Trump’s FCC has done away with net neutrality. The solution, if there is one, is to draw people away from Facebook and toward an idea animated by something other than the profit motive. “If Americans truly want a digital public forum centered on the needs of the citizenry,” writes Sifry, “it has to be built and maintained the same way they’ve built and maintained America’s national parks — as public goods open to all.

Which brings me back to Alex Jones. In theory, his freedom to speak and to publish are intact. In reality, he can’t gain access to the platforms he needs to get his message out. Jones, of course, must be held accountable for the Sandy Hook families who’ve had to go into hiding because of his vicious lies, and for promoting crazy conspiracy theories like the Pizzagate child-sex ring tied to Hillary Clinton, which prompted a deranged individual to show up and start shooting.

The semi-censorship to which Jones has been subjected — quieted, but not silenced — may seem like a small price to pay in order to stop him from harassing innocent people and putting their lives in danger. Given the media environment as it currently exists, the platforms did the right thing by taking away his megaphone. But their actions only underscore what we have lost by granting custody of our free-speech rights to private entities beyond our control. Next time it might be someone who’s far less malevolent than Jones.

We really need to ask ourselves whether we want that accountability to come in the form of giant corporations silencing him simply because it’s good for business. I would not tell Mark Zuckerberg how to run his company, although even he has suggested that he would not be averse to some common-sense regulations. Like Sifry, though, I believe the time has come to try to revive the idea of the internet as a truly public space rather than the private playground of tech billionaires.

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