Inside the triumphant Alex Jones banned everywhere story is a worrying nuance about free speech and platform dominance

When we worry about free speech, we mostly worry about governments suppressing speech, not private actors. It's one thing to say that the US government shouldn't have the ability to arbitrarily censor some speech, but it's another altogether to say, that, for example, Boing Boing shouldn't be able to kick jerks off its message boards -- that has as much to do with "compelled publication" as it does with "free speech."

But that's not the end of the story, because the world isn't composed of the giant governments of the world, controlling massive public spheres in which civic discourse is transacted, and millions of small private spaces of relatively equal standing, where conversations also take place.

Instead, our online world has almost no public spaces -- that is, spaces for discourse that are controlled by the US government and subject to First Amendment protection -- and a tiny handful of incredibly large, powerful companies control the vast majority of our civic discourse online. These companies operate "at scale" which means that they have a very low ratio of customer-service reps to users, and that means that nearly all of their decisions about who can speak, and what can be said, are made in secret, often by algorithms, with no appeal and no way to even get a human to explain what's happened to you.

That's why it's worrying that Facebook and Twitter have (for example) purged millions of "bots" (who sometimes weren't bots) and "extremists" (who were sometimes just people who were discussing or opposing extremism) and "inauthentic content" (which was sometimes very authentic indeed).

Not because this violates the First Amendment, and not because the strict First Amendment rules should necessarily apply to private actors, even very, very large ones -- but because when the majority of our civic discourse is regulated by unaccountable algorithms and unaccountable moderators working for giant monopolistic companies, that has real, inarguable free speech implications.

The reality is that Alex Jones' exile from the big platforms is significant because, without their backing, his ability to reach his audience will be very severely curtailed. That's OK with me as a kind of utilitarian matter, because Jones is a terrible person who victimized some of the most traumatized people in America, families of murdered children, in order to sell quack vitamin supplements. So, yeah, fuck that guy.

But the very significance of this should be a wake-up call to all of us. Because, of course, rich and powerful people are better at navigating the rules of the big platforms than random users -- or, more to the point, marginalized, at risk people.

Just look at Cambodia, where the local brutal dictator has mastered the rules of Facebook that are supposed to prevent harassment by forcing users to go by their real names. In Cambodia, dissidents have two choices: go by their real names on the platforms and risk being arrested and tortured, or stay silent. There just isn't any way to reach the Cambodian population if you aren't on Facebook, and the local autocrat will get you booted from Facebook if you don't use your real name.

Which means that even if Facebook's censorship isn't a legal problem, it's surely a moral one.

So yeah, it's hilarious that Alex Jones's own Infowars website has terms of service that say "If you violate these rules, your posts and/or user name will be deleted. It is not censorship if you violate the rules and your post is deleted. All civilizations have rules and if you violate them you can expect to be ostracized from the tribe" and yet they're crying censorship.

And no, it's not the case that "first they came for the awful conspiracy-theorist vitamin huxters and I said nothing and then they came for me." But not because the excision of Alex Jones from public discourse isn't cause for concern, but rather, because Jones is just the latest person to disappear from public view because the platforms get to decide who is and isn't visible to the world. As Jillian York wrote, "If there is a slippery slope of platform censorship, it didn't start with Infowars. It started with the Moroccan atheists, the trans models, the drag performers, the indigenous women..." York continues "On a personal level, so am I [OK with Jones's removal]. But I'm not okay with all of the decisions that came before it (the ones cited in that tweet) and I don't see tech corporations as liberal when they police women's bodies as they do."

(Image: Michael R Zimmermann , CC-BY-SA

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