Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube’s decision to ban right-wing shock jock Alex Jones and his media site, Infowars, from their platforms in early August has reignited a debate about what, if any, obligations these companies have to provide access to ideologically diverse users in the name of free speech. Twitter came under enormous criticism for refusing to go along, but on Tuesday announced that they were suspending Jones’s account for one week due to violations of its rules.
Jones was banned after years of public outrage over lies spread by Infowars, including the infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy and the false claim that the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 26 elementary school children and staff members were killed, was a hoax. Jones is also known for tirades against Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.
Some critics have claimed that, given the monopoly-like power that Silicon Valley giants now exert over the internet, encouraging them to regulate content based on ideology, hate speech, or arbitrations of “truth” and “falsity” will jeopardize internet freedom and vest a handful of corporate executives too much control over it. But others have defended the choice to ban Jones, citing the anti-hate speech rules and nonviolence policies almost universally adopted by major internet platforms.
Because terms of service are open to interpretation — “hate speech,” for example, can be difficult to define — there is a significant risk that standards will be inconsistently applied. The ambiguous policies also present a threat to controversial speech from the left — think, for example, of speech related to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or expressive speech about bad cops or white men.
Last Friday, Sam Biddle, Glenn Greenwald, and I debated how the left should consider free speech issues in the context of online platforms. Above is a video of our conversation.