In an unprecedented move by four major tech companies, the popular American political commentator, self-described patriot and much maligned so-called conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was simultaneously banned from Facebook, Apple’s podcast listing service, the Google owned Youtube video platform and the Spotify music and podcast streaming service.
The move was said to relate to statements Jones made which the platforms’ owners felt were “hateful” although none of the companies in question offered a more detailed exploitation of why they decided to simultaneously drop Jones and his Infowars agency. Debates surrounding Jones’s blanket banning have aroused much emotion both for and against the move with the notoriously flamboyant Jones himself not shying away from the controversy. But beyond the emotional qualities of the issue, some very important legal, moral and cultural issues have been raised.
Free speech or free enterprise?
The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.
It is this important element of US law which allows for the largely unregulated right to speak and assemble freely and is often considered one of the most if not the most important features of American society. Likewise, the US has long been a champion of free enterprise where the right of businesses to act according to their own wishes tends to trump any wider governmental or social considerations.
Normally, the concepts of free speech and free enterprise do not contradict one another but at various times in US history they have. In 1964, the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which forbade private enterprise establishments from refusing service to individuals based on their race. Similar provinces exist in respect of a persons’s religion while in many US states this is also applied to one’s sexual orientation, political affiliation and membership of a labor union/trade union.
Therefore, while Facebook, Apple, Spotify and Google are all privately owned companies with their own rules and regulations, they may have overstepped the line in refusing to allow Jones on their platforms based upon his political beliefs.
Facebook and Youtube are particularly instructive test cases as on these sites, the vast majority of the content is user generated. Furthermore, the users generate the content for free, viewers of the content can see it and interact with it for free and Facebook and Youtube then generate revenue from advertisement money in a not dissimilar method to how major broadcast networks in the US generate revenue from televised commercials from corporate sponsors.
However, while broadcast networks either produce their own content or pay for it from external production companies, Facebook is in this sense more like a telecom corporation in so far as it merely provides a platform for individuals to post written, audio and visual content.
To this end, when all is said and done, all social media companies must be thought of as the 21st century version of the telecommunications (telecom) companies of the 20th century. Social media platforms exist merely as a vehicle for people to share written, pictorial, video content with varying degrees of interactivity. The difference is that unlike paying a phone company or internet provider a monthly fee based on usage or a flat monthly rate, most social media companies are paid for through the advertisements and sponsored content throughout any given social media website or app. Because of this, social media websites can thrive only when they have the largest possible cross-section of international users for whom different advertisements and sponsored content is appealing to varying degrees.
Therefore, just as phone companies and internet providers cannot prohibit users based on the content they view or produce, with the exception being limited to that proscribed by law enforcement (e.g. child pornography or a conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism), it would appear that Facebook and Google have crossed a line in restricting Jones based on ideological concerns rather than criminal activity. As it stands, Jones is not accused of committing any criminal offence nor are his colleagues.
Therefore, in limiting Jones’s right to speak freely, are Facebook and Youtube effectively doing the digital equivalent of refusing someone service at a restaurant because of his or her race, religious beliefs, political affiliations or sexual orientation? A strong case can be made saying that this is exactly what has happened.
Why does Jones blame China?
The aforementioned issues all deal with the interpretation and implementation of American law, inside the United States as it pertains to US citizens. Furthermore, Facebook, Google and Apple are American companies while Spotify was founded in Sweden, trades on the New York Stock Exchange and is currently registered in Luxembourg. Not only are none of these companies Chinese, but Youtube, Spotify and Facebook are not even available in China while Apple’s iTunes platform does not typically carry US content in the Chinese market.
Be that as it may, Jones continues to blame the Chinese government for the crackdown on his platform. Jones appears to believe that there is some conspiracy between American tech firms and Beijing whereby in exchange for gaining access to the coveted Chinese market, such companies will have to remove content in the United States that is Sinophobic. In reality, the Chinese government has never expressed an opinion on what Americans in America say about China. The President of the United States has very negative opinions about China and China has never suggested removing Donald Trump from power. By contrast, the US has frequently called for the removal of foreign heads of state and in many cases has used its military to achieve this – something which Jones typically condemns.
As things stand, tech companies operating in multiple markets already “censor” content based primarily on licencing and copyright issues. For example Spotify might have a particular music album available for streaming in the United States but if the material is not licensed for streaming in the European Union, the album will not be available to Spotify users in Europe. The same goes for American tech companies whose platforms are available in China. The content on these platforms has to conform to domestic law just as is the case in respect of European platforms in the US complying with US law and US platforms in Europe complying with EU law. Because of this, many American websites recently suspended their European operations because they did not have time to comply with the new European data protection regulations which are vastly more stringent than those in the United States.
American tech companies vs. American values
In spite of Jones’s anti-Chinese conspiracy theories which have no basis in fact, the issues surrounding Jones are deeply important to the United States not just because of the questions of free speech versus free enterprise but because of a question of American values.
All countries function at their best when they are free to be shaped by their own values and cultural characteristics. In the United States, freedom of speech and in particular the kind of speech that Alex Jones provides is a deeply important element of the American cultural experience. The US was not founded on the principles of polite speech and social restraint but on a “don’t tread on me” mentality that gave rise to the cowboy can-do spirit that Jones exhibits.
By censoring Jones, American companies are displaying an anti-American spirit that would be as worrying as if Chinese companies began exhibiting an anti-Chinese spirit. The problem therefore is one for America and Americans to address as the corporate oligarchy censoring Jones may not only be violating his first amendment rights but in a broader ethical and moral sense, they are violating the American spirit.
In the case of China, Alex Jones is plain wrong but in the United States, one has the right to be wrong. Free speech is not free unless it allows for the offensive, false and controversial alongside the polite, inoffensive and mild. Not a single nation on earth censors speech that is in favour of the corporate or political status quo but what once made the United States unique was the ability of ordinary people to peacefully project controversial fears without fear of retribution.
The censorship of Jones therefore is symptomatic of corporate totalitarianism replacing a spirit of genuine human freedom. This has nothing to do with China and everything to do with America rapidly losing everything that helped it to become a superpower.