Don't let Big Tech become Big Brother

Don't let Big Tech become Big Brother
© Greg Nash

Big tech has made a big mistake. Swept up in a wave of political correctness and the fallout from the Russia investigation, many of the largest online platforms have embarked upon a fruitless adventure in censorship that can only further divide rather than unite the nation. These internet companies have lost sight of the most basic principle underlying the First Amendment, that no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we must put our trust in the power of a free market of ideas.

I have never read anything by Alex Jones or InfoWars, nor have any desire to read any of his conspiracy theories. However, I do care if 2.4 million of his followers on YouTube want to see his material and are now unable find it. It is their basic right as Americans to have unimpeded access to the material of their choice. But what some tech companies are doing today takes them away from operating as open platforms to becoming big media companies even though they are, by and large, legally immune from responsibility for user content. They cannot claim both the exemption under the guise of being just a neutral utility then turn around and use editors and algorithms to pick opinion losers and winners.

Just yesterday I personally received a notice from Google disallowing an ad I placed on its platform, one that has been running for weeks, with a cryptic notice mysteriously referring me to the guidelines for political advertising. Only it was not political advertising at all. I placed an ad for a political game, Two Seventy, that I built with friends for fun that allows people to reenact campaigns. But Google’s computers saw the names of political figures and, bingo, I was censored, given no one to call and asked to fill out a form to try to lift this unfair restraint on my speech. This is what will happen with increasing frequency. The automated bots on online platforms can become roving censors unable to understand the true context of what they are reading and, yet, wielding enormous power to delete, downgrade or hide words, pictures and information.

Until now, the big tech platforms like Google, YouTube, and Facebook stayed out of censoring. They preached the benefits of an open and connected society. If they were going to delete material, it would mostly be on a very limited basis, using a scalpel, not a machete. Sometimes they even tolerated too much freedom on their platforms and were fined for accepting fake drug ads, and for failing to police their platforms of sex trafficking and other crimes. They also have not always been vigilant enough to catch bots and fake accounts. They made some mistakes that they could and should fix to the best of their abilities.

But the wholesale removal of material from widely followed, fully disclosed, and completely accountable personalities crosses a dark line that could send a chill down the spine of anyone who would want to express exactly what they think and post it on the internet. Over the last decade, we gave these online platforms the keys to our information kingdom. We let them become more powerful than any newspaper or TV station. Now their response to being thrust into the political limelight is to become potential censors of our news and even opinion information.

As the Supreme Court has ruled, we can and should ban speech that leads to “imminent lawless action” but when dealing with opinion speech, even flaky and distasteful opinions, we should be very careful not to exceed the limits set down by the highest court. Whether done by the government or companies, the belief that speech is being suppressed on the basis of political ideology can be dangerously destabilizing.

The First Amendment prevents Congress from passing any laws that abridge free speech, but it does not regulate companies or employers. This means they can remove all the content they want and, in most places, your employer can fire you for your political views. The Founders never imagined that a few platforms could become such powerful dispensers of news and information or that social mobs could force employers to fire people. Now, those in power can simply lean on the big tech companies to do the very job politicians are banned from doing.

Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergAdvocacy group accuses Facebook of fueling anti-Muslim hate Texas GOP move to overhaul voting laws: What you need to know Congress must come together and protect our children on social media MORE, earnestly I believe, started down this slippery slope a few months ago and announced he is hiring 10,000 additional folks whose job it will be to keep the platform safe and secure. You can read that as “censorship from objectionable speech.” I think a better course would have been to declare that, with very limited exceptions, Facebook is an open platform dedicated to free expression. Sometimes Zuckerberg has in fact stood behind exactly this kind of strong internet freedom, but then he also has pulled back after being presented with hard cases. I believe that the hesitation to stand fully behind the First Amendment deflated his users and helped undo his stock. Who wants to be part of a platform picked over by a total of more than 20,000 censors?

Had he not succumbed to political pressure by focusing only on bots and misidentified accounts, instead of trying to please everyone by rooting out a swath of “offensive” speech, I think his position would have lifted rather than depressed the enthusiasm of his users. Google is now reportedly changing its tune and is open to doing business in China, willing for the first time to go along with Chinese censorship rules.

In 1890, America faced the rise of “yellow journalism” with Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst battling it out trying to outdo each other with sensationalistic and often wildly exaggerated stories. We did not shut down the newspapers. We did not haul their publishers before Congress. So the response today should have been, as it was back then, to give people more rights and causes of action to shoot down falsehoods, rather than create a cloaked network of corporate censorship.

The big tech companies will only find themselves enmeshed in a growing public crossfire if they become active arbiters of content, purveyors of speech codes, and forerunners of a “Bladerunner” future. Congress should remove the content liability exemption from companies exercising too much power over user content. Or, better yet, the industry should adopt a uniform published code with clear standards mirroring the Supreme Court and have tough cases judged by a panel that genuinely has equal numbers of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Maybe we should have an internet freedom amendment to the Constitution.

As the ACLU once understood well, the very essence of the First Amendment is tolerating speech we hate, and standing up for it takes courage. We need some more of that kind of courage today.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.