The Tech Companies Are Showing Their Power to Regulate Speech by Booting Alex Jones. We Should Fear It.

08-08-2018 11 min #144442

On Sunday, Apple  announced that it was removing most of Alex Jones’ content from its podcast feeds. The chief of the website and broadcaster Infowars, Jones is a longtime conspiracy theorist whose prominence has risen recently thanks to the rise of another conspiracist (and Jones admirer):  Donald Trump. On Monday, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and others followed Apple’s lead and removed much of Jones’s content from their platforms. While these moves have cheered Jones’ critics and those worried about the rise of misinformation and hate speech, it has also raised a number of questions about the role and power of the major tech companies, and their ability to regulate the speech of their users.

To talk about what the Jones moves signal, I spoke by phone with Barry Lynn, a leading critic of those tech companies and thinker on antitrust regulation. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the ways in which the power of major tech platforms is so unprecedented in American history, what Apple is—relatively speaking—doing right, and why the tough decisions that Facebook and others have to make are the result of their own bad decisions.

Isaac Chotiner: What should I say for your bio?

Barry Lynn: I’m the executive director of the Open Markets Institute. You can also say I wrote  Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.

I’ll throw in an Amazon link.

I’m still there. They haven’t taken me down.

Hopefully after this conversation. What was your first thought when you found out that Alex Jones was going to be essentially banned from various platforms?

It was a complex set of thoughts. Alex Jones is somebody … there are a lot of problems with who he is and what he is advocating. And the less of Alex Jones there is, my sense is, the better. At the same time, I have some concerns about how the decisions are being made and who is making those decisions. There is probably not even a particularly good understanding of who made the Alex Jones that we have today.

Who is making those decisions, No. 1?

In the case of, say, Apple taking Alex Jones out of iTunes, that is a decision by a very large private corporation about the distribution of information in what arguably should be an open-market system. And in the case of his work on Facebook, the decision is being made by the executives at Facebook. Decisions about who get to speak and how they get to speak on basic communications platforms are really decisions for the people of the United States to make. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, we didn’t have the executives of AT&T making decisions about who could speak on AT&T.

What did you mean about who made the Alex Jones we have today?

Alex Jones has been around for a long time. He has been being Alex Jones for many years now. He has suddenly become really important because of a few things. One, we have this choke-pointing of communications across Google and Facebook over the past 10 years. Suddenly you have these pipes that have been created, and if you amplify things across these pipes, you are amplifying them in a really big way. It isn’t just true for Alex Jones. It is true for Russian propaganda, it is true for all of these different kinds of information that until recently was pretty marginal, and these people who were pretty marginal. We have had marginal whack jobs providing this information and making these kinds of cases for a long time.

"Google and Facebook [have] captured such a dominant position in the distribution of news, and …their business model is designed to amplify these types of voices." — Barry Lynn

What has changed in recent years is the size of the audience they are getting, and that is a function to a large extent of the fact that you have Google and Facebook having captured such a dominant position in the distribution of news, and that their business model is designed to amplify these types of voices.

So they have amplified the voices, and now have to make these decisions, despite helping cause the problem?

Yeah, as a society, do we want private actors making decisions about who gets to speak and who doesn’t get to speak. If you are talking about the New York Times, yes. We want private actors to make decisions. The publishers of the New York Times. The editors of the New York Times. Not everybody reads the New York Times. Not everybody reads the New York Times or is dependent on the New York Times. So if they say that we are not going to publish this person and are going to publish that person, that’s fine. They are one of many newspapers that are competing for attention. But when you have people who control fundamental infrastructures in society making those kinds of decisions, the effects are going to be entirely different.

You said “the people” should be making these decisions, not the head of Facebook. Wouldn’t one argument be that we as a democratic society have chosen to empower these companies, chosen to give them our power, and chosen to allow them to become monopolies in some sense?

I don’t think anyone voted on any of those things. Did anyone vote to make Google and Facebook monopolies. Did anyone vote to say we are going to make private actors make these decisions? There hasn’t been such a vote. People are just waking up to the fact that these guys are monopolies. People are just waking up to the fact that these guys have built these machines and amplified these kinds of voices. We only had our first major hearing in Congress last summer. This is pretty fresh, pretty new. I think if you put it to a vote, you sure as hell wouldn’t have anybody say, “We will choose these people to be our sensors, we will choose these people to be our regulators.” And remember that this is a two-edged story. Any time you say that you are going to allow for this type of private action or private censorship, it is something that can be used against your friends next year, tomorrow.

Is there any time in American history where the flow of information was controlled by this few actors?

No. Well, there have been a couple times when we had really vital communications systems that choke-pointed a lot of information. The telegraph system back in the 19th century was the dominant means by which we sent information long distance. And we had problems back them. At one point we had Jay Gould, the railroader, who bought control of the telegraph system and tried to manipulate information to serve his own interest. And people said, “this is not going to fly.” In the past, we had simple rules that we applied to all of our communication systems that ensured there was no favoritism, there was not discrimination, that everyone was paid the same rate for the same services. You know, we have been doing this for a long time. And also, there was no vertical integration between communications, distributions, corporations, and people creating content, creating news, creating entertainment.

When you need to have highly concentrated power, like when you have a network—it could be a transportation network, like a railroad, it could be a communications network like AT&T—we made sure that those systems were neutralized, and that the power in those systems was neutralized. You couldn’t use it to favor certain people and disfavor others. The very idea that we would have the private actors in control of those systems making decisions about who gets to ride the rails is anathema to the American system, and nowhere is that more true than in communications. We have something that is really vile here, but if we are going to deal with the vile nature of this information, the first thing we have to do is deal with the power that has been concentrated in Google and Facebook, and the business model that they created to actually take voices like his and amplify them. Saying, “You guys created the problem, now you fix it.” That isn’t the way to deal with it. They created the problem. That’s what we need to focus on right now.

Is there any company that you think is either thinking about it seriously, taking its role seriously, has hired smarter people, any of the above?

Yeah, I think that generally—and this is certainly not a rule—but generally Apple has done a somewhat better job of thinking about this, partly because their business model is to sell stuff rather than sell advertising. Part of the problem with Google and Facebook is that they just sell advertising. Their whole business model is based on gathering information on you and using that information to manipulate you. There is a problem with the Google and Facebook business models. To the extent that Apple has major distribution-of-information platforms, certainly if you are looking at their control over the app market they have somewhat analogous powers, they generally do a better job of managing that. They still engage in problematic decisions, but yeah.

One alternative or solution that has been talked about, where you wouldn’t really be censoring, and which I gather Facebook is also trying to do around different things, is change the algorithm so the content is still on the platform but it’s much harder to find, and won’t go viral. Do you think that is a good solution, or is it ripe for abuse and doesn’t solve the problem?

It’s obviously ripe for abuse. Sen. [Mark] Warner is starting to think about this. There has to be some transparency in the algorithms. There has to be a way for people to look inside the machinery that Google and Facebook create and see if it is fairly structured. Google and Facebook—Google especially—are so fundamental to the information flows in the United States that the idea we are going to sit there and let them run their own algorithms without actually looking at them and how they are structured without any kind of auditing or testing or without being to see if anyone is being discriminated against, we are beyond that point.

I don’t want to simplify what you are saying about the need for long-term solutions, but if you were in charge of one of these companies, would you ban Alex Jones?

Would I? I am going to take a pass on that one because I am not Mark Zuckerberg. It’s tough. Let’s look at it another way. Last week, Zuckerberg gets all kind of trouble because he said he was going to let neo-Nazis continue to communicate on my system. And now he is going to get all this flak for shutting down Alex Jones. This is a really tough issue. He really shouldn’t have this on his shoulders. I don’t envy him the decisions he and his team have to make. What I would recommend to them is to come to the American people, come to Congress, and say, “We need help. We need to figure out how to get out of this. Don’t dump another decision on us and yell at us when we get it wrong.”

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