Commentary

How Much Should Publishers Worry About Digital Bans?

The steps by big technology companies to quiet President Trump and his supporters mark a dangerous turn toward censorship that has worrisome implications for free speech. However, the tech threat against publishers is more economic than political, making antitrust concerns more important.

Twitter and Facebook last week banned the president from their social-media platforms, citing the risk of further incitement of violence after the Capitol Hill riots. Amazon, Apple and Google took steps to erase Parler, a little-known rival to Twitter that had become more popular among conservatives from the internet, because of similar concerns about violent, extremist posts.


The efforts by technology companies are well intended in trying to stamp out hate speech and politically motivated violence, though critics point out the measures are arbitrary and one-sided. Russian democracy advocate Alexei Navalny, who survived a poisoning attempt last year, summed it up in a critique of Twitter's ban of Trump.

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“Don’t tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules," he tweeted. "I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone.”

Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo last year took a menacing tone with a tweet saying “me-first capitalists” would be “the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution. I’ll happily provide video commentary."

If that statement doesn't glorify violence, what does? And yet, Apple and Google didn't threaten to remove Twitter from their app stores -- a move that would have invited more scrutiny from antitrust authorities. It's impossible to distribute an app without access to Apple's App Store or Google Play.

More worrisome are efforts to directly censor publications, like Twitter's suspension of the New York Post after it published a story about the contents of a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden. Twitter falsely claimed the newspaper had published "hacked materials," violating a company policy aimed at the stopping distribution of stolen intellectual property. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for the ban, the company revised its policy and the newspaper eventually returned to the platform.

The incident showcased the power of big technology companies to de-platform publishers without warning. Most publishers are mainstream and don't veer to extremist, violent ideologies that would invite a ban. However, they do compete with Amazon, Twitter, Google and Facebook for audiences and ad dollars, making the growing control of technology companies over the means of content distribution more worrisome.

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