The impact of big tech on free speech

Hayley Simonson, Managing Editor

After President Donald J. Trump was banned from his Twitter platform, the debate between whether this was a constitutional violation of freedom of speech caught fire. What do private third party media companies actually have the legal right to do in terms of limiting user content? The answer is that they can pretty much do whatever they want. 

Section 230 of the law says,  “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.” In essence, this legislation was created to remove liability from big tech media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube from content that their users promote or post. To sum it up, for anything that a user publishes on a platform, the hosting website is legally not responsible for it, and can choose to filter out the content that it sees as a violation of company guidelines. These guidelines are addressed in the terms and conditions that users accept when they sign up for an account. 

Dr. Brian Thornton is a professor of Communication in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Florida. He has studied and taught The First Amendment for more than 20 years, and earned a Ph.D. in this area.

“Facebook and Twitter are not the government. They can block anybody they want. You don’t have First Amendment rights on Facebook. It is a private company with certain stated rules,” Thornton said, “Free speech is great. I love it. But if you use your free speech to urge violence, then private companies can say, sorry, we don’t allow that here.” 

Many people think this legislation lets big media giants have their cake and eat it too. Some urge to even repeal or reform these laws. Dr. Thornton said the repeal and reform position has been pushed with an incorrect notion that it will grant more freedom. He suggests that it would actually do the opposite. If media companies start to be held accountable for all user content, it could result in a curtailment of all individual freedom of speech rights because companies would be so afraid of getting sued. 

Technology neutral legislation has been discussed to prohibit bigger, more powerful companies from exercising so much power over the free market of ideas. 

Dr. Thornton says the line should be drawn in a way that is content neutral. If one group can talk, one can’t prohibit the other solely because it is more powerful. 

“From the very beginning, our government has been obsessed with trying to control and censor the television industry. The television industry should not be so regulated, but it is tightly regulated right now. If we are gonna turn around, and try and do that with Google, then I don’t know. Technology really is a brave new world, and it’s changing every day.”

Photo by Tianvi Ma on Unsplash

In 2016, the Trump Administration worked hard to repeal net neutrality and maximize corporate freedoms on the internet. Internet service providers were primarily focused on instead of individual sites. At one point, Republicans wanted more government control over search algorithms, and wanted tech companies to rewrite algorithms to show equal content on both sides of the political spectrum.

Dr. Thornton says that government control of search algorithms could potentially be a  violation of free speech. 

“It’s a slippery slope. Once you choose to censor in one area you have to censor in the other,” said Thornton, “For example, there used to be something called The Fairness Doctrine, which said you had to give the same time to Republican views that you did to Democratic views. They got rid of this doctrine back during the Regan administration because it was so hard to keep track of. I don’t know if we can bring back a fairness doctrine for social media. I don’t know if that’s possible.” 

The growing power of big tech begs ongoing questions about unequal power balances between corporations and government. Dr. Thornton thinks Twitter and Facebook should have been enforcing codes of conduct long ago, and that companies just starting now look hypocritical.

“There’s a famous saying from Senator Patrick Moynihan that says, ‘You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.’ What scares me right now is that everyone has their own set of facts. We need to get back to the truth for everybody, not just the Democratic truth, not just the Republican truth,” said Thornton, “In any industry there’s going to be some good, and some bad, but by and large, most reporters are trying to offer us the truth. We have all these proliferations of news sources that are opinion filled and propagandistic. It is the job of a reporter to teach the audience how to be critical thinkers, check sources, and not accept things at face value.” 


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