Imagine if the electric company could refuse to provide service to people or businesses its executives didn’t like. Imagine that a mid-level manager at the water company could turn off service to your house if he didn’t like what you posted on Facebook.
You actually don’t have to imagine it. You live it every day when it comes to the critical digital infrastructure services we need to do business in today’s world.
A whole range of people have been deplatformed or restricted on social media and financial services platforms. One of the first high-profile cases was Milo Yiannopoulos being kicked off of Twitter over years-old incendiary remarks. While many people had no sympathy for him, it was just a mere four years later that the sitting President of the United States was permanently banned from the same social network. Then, would-be Twitter competitor Parler found itself booted from Amazon’s web services. Gab, another competitor, was not only booted from nearly every technology platform but from Mastercard and Visa as well. The New York Post, a major newspaper, had its account locked, and links to accurate articles on their web page – in this case information about Hunter Biden’s laptop – banned from being linked to. Given that this story happened shortly before Election Day 2020, this wasn’t just censorship but blatant election interference.
What makes these actions challenging for those affected by them is that there are extremely few competitors in many digital services categories, and the ones that do exist typically act in lockstep. For example, if your business can’t accept Mastercard and Visa today, it’s tough to even be in business. Add in American Express, and that’s basically the entire US card market. Apple and Google’s Android units account for 99% of smartphone operating systems. Once one of them bans you from the app store, which happened to Gab, the other is almost certain to soon follow. The majority of internet traffic today comes from mobile devices. If the app stores ban your company from installing apps on mobile phones, your business can be severely hobbled. Due to network effects, social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook are overwhelmingly dominant in certain categories. To be excluded from these platforms is to be exiled from today’s public square.
The traditional conservative view has been that private businesses can do business with whomever they like. But realistically, nobody fully believes that. Nobody believes companies should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, for example. And nobody believes that critical utility monopolies like the electric company should be able to deny service to people based on their politics or other beliefs. And is it really a private decision to ban someone when the federal government is pressuring companies to censor and our federal government is setting up a Ministry of Truth in the Department of Homeland Security to be led by a strident leftist activist, and when CEOs of tech companies are hauled in front of Congress? As we saw with Operation Choke Point, in which the Obama administration pressured banks to drop gun dealers as customers, many of these ostensibly private sector decisions have resulted from threats from the government.
Nevertheless, marketplace-based solutions to the problem of censorship and deplatforming are to be preferred to regulatory approaches when possible. That’s why Elon Musk’s plan to buy Twitter is such a potential landmark – and why so many leftists in the media, the government, and inside Twitter itself are so alarmed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, says Musk’s Twitter purchase is “dangerous for our democracy.” Musk openly supports free speech and has made it clear he’s unhappy with the censorship on the site, such as when the satire site The Babylon Bee had its account locked after posting a tweet about awarding Rachel Levine their “Man of the Year” award.
Assuming Musk’s purchase comes through, he can expect enormous pressure to continue censoring conservatives. Musk’s existing businesses are heavily dependent on the government regarding contracts, subsidies, and regulatory approvals and the SEC is already investigating him and the FTC just opened an investigation of him. With the average American committing the proverbial three felonies a day, the government’s selective use of the prosecutorial and regulatory apparatus is a key method to go after dissenters and people who threaten its power. If you don’t believe me, just ask Julian Assange.
The media is already pounding Musk and the White House spokesman Jen Psaki has made ominous comments about the Biden administration’s “concern” over social media companies. Other key tech gatekeepers like Apple and Google could easily prevent Musk from bringing free speech back to Twitter simply by threatening to ban the app from their tech stores.
Regardless of what happens with Musk and Twitter, he has put his finger powerfully on the problem of information censorship in today’s world. Americans need to be free to conduct commerce and speak their minds on the issues of the day without the government and big corporations colluding to suppress them. Just as we’d never let the electric company stand in the way of that, we shouldn’t allow digital infrastructure providers do it either.
Aaron M. Renn’s writings can be found at aaronrenn.substack.com.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.