So­cial me­dia walks a fine line when it comes to the First Amend­ment

USA TODAY US Edition - - USA TODAY MONEY - Mike Snider

The Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees Amer­i­cans the right to free speech – but what about when you are on Face­book?

Af­ter Face­book and other so­cial me­dia ser­vices re­moved “The Alex Jones Show” and other con­tent cre­ated by Jones-founded In­fowars, the topic of free speech on­line has in­ten­si­fied.

Al­most in tan­dem over sev­eral hours Sun­day and Mon­day, Ap­ple, YouTube, Face­book and Spo­tify re­moved shows, pod­casts, chan­nels and pages for the far-right sites. Since then, LinkedIn, Mailchimp, Pin­ter­est and Stitcher have re­moved or ter­mi­nated Jones’ and In­fowars’ ac­counts, too.

Jones says the move smacks of cen­sor­ship. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has griped about Face­book be­com­ing the “ar­biter of po­lit­i­cal speech.”

Oth­ers say the on­line sites were justi- fied for re­mov­ing Jones and In­fowars for vi­o­lat­ing these com­pa­nies’ poli­cies on hate speech and have taken Twit­ter to task for not fol­low­ing suit.

Much of the dis­course re­volves around whether Face­book, Twit­ter and other tech com­pa­nies that hold huge – but not to­tal – sway over how in­for­ma­tion is shared should han­dle the prin­ci­ple of free speech.

In the on­line world, busi­nesses of­ten back the no­tion but aren’t legally bound to it. Face­book, Twit­ter and YouTube may be so­cial fo­rums, but each is run by a com­pany that set its own rules. These don’t need to fol­low stric­tures on free speech that the govern­ment does.

“As pri­vate com­pa­nies, Ap­ple, Face­book and Spo­tify can de­cide what con­tent ap­pears on their plat­forms, so I wouldn’t call (the tech sites’ ac­tions) a vi­o­la­tion of speech,” said Lata Nott, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter at the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. That’s dif­fer­ent from the pub­lic sphere. Even hate­ful speech is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment, which pre­cludes the govern­ment from abridg­ing cit­i­zens’ free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion.

Case in point: The First Amend­ment al­lowed for far-right pro­tes­tors last year to pub­licly gather in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, in a protest that turned deadly. Sim­i­larly, white na­tion­al­ists have the right to protest at a “Unite the Right” demon­stra­tion planned Satur­day in Wash­ing­ton.

❚ What did Face­book and the oth­ers say Jones and In­fowars did? Face­book said it re­moved four of Jones’ page for re­peat­edly post­ing con­tent that in­cluded “hate speech that at­tacks or de­hu­man­izes oth­ers” and vi­o­lat­ing its pol­icy against bul­ly­ing, the net­work said in a post on its web­site.

That echoed Ap­ple’s state­ment that it “does not tol­er­ate hate speech.” And YouTube pointed to Jones’ and In­fowars’ re­peated vi­o­la­tions of its hate speech and ha­rass­ment poli­cies for ac­count ter­mi­na­tions. Last week, Spo­tify said it had re­moved some episodes of “The Alex Jones Show” be­cause it vi­o­lated its pol­icy against “hate con­tent.”

Jones has gained at­ten­tion for con­spir­acy the­o­ries, in­clud­ing his claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary school shoot­ing was staged. He also called the 9/11 ter­ror at­tacks a govern­ment “in­side job” and pro­moted the Piz­za­gate con­spir­acy the­ory.

❚ Were Jones’ and In­fowars’ free speech rights vi­o­lated? No. Face­book and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms are pri­vate com­pa­nies and have terms of ser­vice users or con­sumers agree to in or­der to par­tic­i­pate. But be­yond the First Amend­ment, there is a “broader so­cial free speech prin­ci­ple” peo­ple may be ap­ply­ing in the Jones and In­fowars case, said Alex Abdo, se­nior staff at­tor­ney with the Knight First Amend­ment In­sti­tute, a non­par­ti­san, not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion at Columbia Uni­ver­sity.

“There is this idea in this coun­try, since its found­ing, peo­ple should be free to say what they want to say,” he said. “That is what this is about ... the ques­tion of whether so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies that ex­er­cise enor­mous in­flu­ence over pub­lic dis­course ought to di­rectly si­lence par­tic­i­pants.”

❚ What about Ap­ple and Spo­tify? Like Face­book and YouTube, which is owned by Google, each are com­pa­nies. And, in the case of iTunes, Ap­ple is “sort of de­cid­ing what mer­chan­dise is avail­able” in its dig­i­tal mu­sic store, the First Amend­ment Cen­ter’s Nott said. Ap­ple still of­fers the Alex Jones Ra­dio and In­fowars apps in its app store, how­ever. The In­fowars Of­fi­cial App ranked No. 3 among all News apps Wed­nes­day.

As for Spo­tify, the mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice is de­cid­ing what they will of­fer sub­scribers and free lis­ten­ers. “It’s a dif­fer­ent anal­ogy than like a pub­lic square,” where the govern­ment pro­tec­tions of free speech would come into play, she said.

❚ What about Twit­ter? CEO Jack Dorsey in tweets late Tues­day said the so­cial net­work had not re­moved Jones and In­fowars’ Twit­ter ac­counts his “In­fowars” show be­cause “he hasn’t vi­o­lated our rules. We’ll en­force if he does.”

Where Face­book says it does not al­low hate speech, Twit­ter does up to a point, Nott said. “If you at­tack some­body and pro­mote vi­o­lence against peo­ple who fall into hate speech cat­e­gories they will ban you, but they don’t ex­plic­itly ban hate speech,” she said.

❚ Were they jus­ti­fied in their re­moval of con­tent? Legally, yes. But for users and law­mak­ers, that’s of­ten not the only stan­dard.

Face­book and so­cial me­dia plat­forms have tried to take a “try not to take any­thing down if you can pos­si­bly avoid it ap­proach,” said Emma Llanso, direc­tor of the Free Ex­pres­sion Project at the Cen­ter for Democ­racy & Tech­nol­ogy.

But the cri­sis over false news and the ma­nip­u­la­tion of fake ac­counts and Rus­sian bots on Face­book, YouTube and Twit­ter has drawn con­gres­sional and reg­u­la­tory at­ten­tion in re­cent months.

Con­cerns about in­tim­i­da­tion on so­cial net­works against some groups – in- clud­ing women, mi­nori­ties and the LGBT com­mu­nity – has forced some to act. Face­book and Twit­ter have pub­licly ex­pressed ef­forts to lessen the abu­sive en­vi­ron­ment on their net­works.

Congress has al­ready held hear­ings in the wake of the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica cri­sis, in which as many as 87 mil­lion Face­book users’ data was shared, without their knowl­edge, with a data min­ing firm used by the Trump cam­paign in the 2016 elec­tion. And law­mak­ers have voiced con­cerns about fake Rus­sian ac­counts and ter­ror­ist con­tent on Face­book, Twit­ter, YouTube and In­sta­gram.

Ear­lier this year, Face­book made pub­lic its guide­lines for what users can post on the 2.2 bil­lion-strong ser­vice. More than a year ago, Twit­ter pledged to ad­dress com­plaints about racist, sex­ist and anti-Semitic ha­rass­ment.

As part of a bal­ance to keep the ma­jor­ity of their au­di­ences feel­ing safe to use their net­works, “the so­cial me­dia plat­forms ... are go­ing much far­ther than the govern­ment ever could as far as re­strict­ing speech,” Llanso said.

❚ What are pos­si­ble reper­cus­sions? Ex­pect Congress to con­tinue to weigh in. Face­book has sched­uled a planned in­ter­nal au­dit con­ducted by an out­side law firm in re­sponse to crit­i­cism from law­mak­ers about the net­work’s per­ceived anti-con­ser­va­tive bias. And there will be calls for more trans­parency about how so­cial net­works make de­ci­sions on what speech is not al­lowed, too. “If the com­pa­nies want this power then they have an obli­ga­tion to ex­plain pub­licly when they use it, why, and with what pro­tec­tions there are against mis­use,” Abdo said.

Groups in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, the Cen­ter for Democ­racy & Tech­nol­ogy and other tech ex­perts and ad­vo­cates have be­gun craft­ing prin­ci­ples to pre­vent the squelch­ing of speech as so­cial net­works en­force con­tent guide­lines.

Si­lenc­ing voices in the dig­i­tal realm is a slip­pery slope, Llanso says. The prom­ise of the in­ter­net is that its de­cen­tral­ized na­ture al­lowed for the shar­ing of un­lim­ited view­points.

If the tech com­pa­nies’ ac­tion against Jones and In­fowars was co­or­di­nated, that co­or­di­na­tion could, in the­ory, con­tinue even into “the tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tion of the in­ter­net,” she said. “That could make it harder to get an al­ter­nate per­spec­tive out there. The more co­or­di­na­tion there is, the more we have re­verted to a sys­tem of cen­tral­ized cen­sor­ship that I think, rightly, we should all be con­cerned about.”

“There is this idea in this coun­try, since its found­ing, peo­ple should be free to say what they want to say.”

Alex Abdo A se­nior staff at­tor­ney with the Knight First Amend­ment In­sti­tute


Alex Jones speaks at the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in 2016.

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