Freedom, Monopoly, and Faith

You might have noticed that I seem to be focused on conscientia informata, or morally operating from an informed conscience – something beyond opinion or even conscience. It is a basic duty of every Christian, as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I think it is a required skills and disposition for every Christian who operates in the public square or in private.

You have perhaps read in the news that the Twitter-alternative for the very-to-ultra-conservative voices, as well as Alt-Right, Parler, will go “dark” on Monday. Parler used Amazon’s AWS cloud to host it services. As well, the principle mobile app stores (Google and Apple) no longer have Parler’s app as a download. Parler needs to find an alternative large scale hosting service, port their data from AWS, rebuilt the core of the database, and find alternatives for downloading the app. They have the financial backing from like-minded deep pockets. And don’t assume that those “deep pockets” are aligned politically with the views on Parler. More on that later.

Here is a tweet making its way through the Tweeter sphere:

Twitter & FB ban accounts. “It’s not censorship, you can create your own app.”
Then Google & Apple ban apps. “It’s not censorship, create your own website.”
Then Amazon bans web hosting. “It’s not censorship, create your own…”
What? Your own internet? Just so you can tweet?

I suspect that drilling down on the author I would find a strong advocate for net neutrality that would prevent huge corporations like Google, Apple, and Amazon from determining what has any presence on the internet – not to mention Facebook and Twitter. They make a case for concern about the rise of monopolistic power being exerted on the internet. That is in addition to the assertion of anti-conservative bias. Even if you disagree with the content of Parler, there is centralization of power and influence – something European countries are aggressively legislating and litigating – Google being the primary agency in focus.

All of this circles the hallowed freedom of speech protections in the Constitution in the First Amendment. But the fundamental right is not without restrictions and exceptions. Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats and intimidation, and commercial speech such as advertising.

Clearly “true threats and intimidation” is of concern in the light of the insurrection at the Capitol and the interruption of Parler.  In the 2003 decision Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court of the United States defined true threats as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals”. The Court also held that speech becomes unprotected intimidation when it is “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death”. Amazon et. al. would say this is where Parler crossed the line, allowing “true threats and intimidation” to go unchecked on its service.

Speech also becomes unprotected when it is used to promote imminent violent or lawless action.  This exception, also known as incitement, originated from a 1969 case called Brandenburg v. Ohio. In that case, the Court distinguished between mere advocacy of lawless behavior and incitement to imminent lawless action. In order for speech to lose its protected status, the Court ruled that there had to be evidence that the language in question was being used to encourage immediate lawlessness and that illegal action was likely to take place.

The social media companies who control the channel do not want to police the exceptions to the Freedom of Speech, they are hesitant to enter into the grey areas that are not already noted exceptions and restrictions. I could not find any restrictions on promoting views based on questionable or outright incorrect facts, but then we have clearly entered the world of “alternative facts.” In this arena, Twitter did not ban President Trump’s tweets about the coronavirus, but chose to label them with a warning about their veracity.

The motivation of the Google, Facebook, Amazon et. al.? There is the possibility that they want to be good corporate citizens. There is the possibility that it serves their own long-term financial interest. One need only think of the very popular Vines application – well popular at one time. It was the Tik-Tok of its day. Super popular and influential is was acquired by Twitter but shutdown in 2016. Why? it was an unprofitable business losing popularity to other similar services, most notably Instagram. Burning money while losing market share wasn’t sustainable. After all, it’s a business and the central business is accountable to its shareholders. Not the public, necessarily. Regardless of how one thinks about Tik-Tok, Vines is a reminder about one of the central motivations of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

Is there a conclusion? Nope. I pray that you will continue to be curious, form your conscience, question what all the above demands of your Christian faith, as you enter your voice into the public forum. At our baptisms, on our behalf our godparents received a candle lighted from the Easter Candle, with the words, “Receive the Light of Christ. This child has been enlightened by Christ. With the help of parents, godparents and family, may they bring that light unextinguished when they go out with all the saints to greet Christ at his coming.” (or similar words).

Take your light, well formed into the public square.

3 thoughts on “Freedom, Monopoly, and Faith

  1. Although I understand the discussion of conscientia informata, I’m uncomfortable conflating what these corporations have done with a discussion of freedom of speech. The relevant part of the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” It doesn’t say that corporations can’t do that. As you rightly point out, these are businesses. Regardless of how many people freely use them, Facebook and Twitter are not “the public square.” Unless and until Congress creates legislation appropriate to this day and age – a time when monopolistic companies can create and maintain what amounts to a public square – then these “private squares” will continue to be subject to the whims of their authoritarian rulers (i.e. owners and/or corporate executives), who can police them and enforce their rules as they see fit.

    It is interesting to watch this debate and see the absolutely inconsistency of logic presented by some people I know. For example, if Catholic hospitals have the right to refuse provision of certain medical services, and bakeries have the right to refuse to bake wedding cakes for certain people, then these tech companies absolutely have the right to refuse to provide services if they so choose. The logic is that they are not government organizations, so they can follow the “conscience” of those who own or run them and choose how and who to serve. But when big tech companies choose how and who to serve, these same friends of mine cry “foul,” and start talking about infringement of their Constitutional rights.

    If you want to shout your opinions at the world, I don’t have to give you my megaphone – and neither does Big Tech du Jour. Yes, it’s a LOT of power for corporations to hold. But it’s theirs until “we the people” decide to regulate them for the benefit of all (not just shareholders).

    • Hey Brandon – I think we are on the same page re: corporation’s role vis-a-vis freedom of speech. Part of what I always hope to achieve in these posts is to have people be curious about the details under a particular question or position they take. In the recent years people operate on little information, questionable data, and tend to stay in their own comfort zone. So… I will raise and issue, dig a little here and there, and hope that people will continue. The person quoted asked a series of questions that can be seen as “my freedom of speech is being impinged upon by Big Tech: [Twitter & FB ban accounts. “It’s not censorship, you can create your own app.” Then Google & Apple ban apps. “It’s not censorship, create your own website.” Then Amazon bans web hosting. “It’s not censorship, create your own…” What? Your own internet? Just so you can tweet?]

      The answers are Yes (app), Yes (website), but no you do not need to create your own internet, but you might have to create your own server farm/cloud on the internet. Because as you point out the social space looks and acts like the public square but is, as you describe, really a “private square.” So the one who cries freedom of speech about their content on FB, Twitter, etc does not have much room to argue – but what they post is subject to litigation for speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and true threats and intimidation.

  2. Very insightful, stimulating piece…..need to have my 2nd cup of coffee before I launch deeply into this one.

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