I know a number of people concerned about censorship by private social media companies in 2020. I love constitutional freedoms and the internet. I love how the internet provides the ability to openly exchange ideas with people all over the world. I hope here to explain why I think that the recent choices of giant tech corporations are unlikely to jeopardize that in any meaningful way.

Censoring the Internet is Hard

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

John Gilmore in 1993

Over the decades, many people have tried to censor the internet and have come laughably short. In 2003, Barbra Streisand attempted to sue a photographer who had taken a photo of her cliffside Malibu mansion as part of a collection of 12,000 photos documenting the erosion of the California coast. The lawsuit itself drew attention to the photo and it was copied and disseminated widely. This has since come to be known as the Streisand effect.

A similar thing happens anytime that someone reports that they have been censored. The fact that someone might not want you to see something drives interest and people will go out and find it. A good question to ask yourself when you hear about something being censored is, “How did I find out this was censored?” If censorship is effective, you won’t know it’s happening. I learned that Twitter had censored the NY Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop… on Twitter. I probably saw more about it on Twitter than I would have if they had left it alone.

Effective Internet Censorship

It is possible for a government to censor the internet with heavy authoritarian policies. China has put into place a very effective censorship system. China has:

  1. Developed and deployed the technology to filter all foreign internet traffic. This initiative is known as The Great Firewall.
  2. Set rules for domestic internet sites that govern what they can and cannot publish.
  3. Blocked access to any foreign internet sites that China does not control. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all blocked in China.
  4. Threatened those who disseminate censored information with jailtime and other punishments.
  5. Also censored any information about how to circumvent censorship protocols.

In the United States it is against copyright law for me to publish copyrighted materials on my website. However I can publish information about how to acquire copyrighted materials if I want. When Twitter censored the NY Post article, they would have also needed to censor any mention of the NY Post or censorship in order to block it effectively.

Twitter Doesn’t Really Want to Censor Anyway

Large, publicly-traded corporations are motivated by revenue. They consistently choose to do what makes them the most money or what loses them the least money. Individual employees may be motivated by idealism and may make individual choices to more heavily moderate certain types of content. However, the impact of those employees is limited and if their idealism gets in the way of the company’s revenue, they will find themselves out of a job. So how does Twitter maximize their revenue? Twitter wants:

  1. To maximize the number of people using their platform.
  2. To maximize the amount of time and attention each user spends on their platform.
  3. To keep employees happy enough that they don’t walk out or (GULP!) unionize.
  4. To not spend more money or do more work than they have to.

With this in mind, it is easy to put Twitter’s decision-making into context. They want everyone across the political spectrum using their platform. They want everyone to have heightened emotions. They want us excited or angry or afraid. This leads to more engagement and more time using their app. However, if public opinion turns against Twitter too much, that could make their employees unhappy which could become expensive. They also want to avoid the appearance of leaning too far to one side of the political spectrum for fear of losing their users on the other side.

Widespread censorship of right-leaning ideas would hurt Twitter in at least three of the four financial factors mentioned above. It would cause a mass exodus of right-leaning users to other platforms, it would hide controversial posts that would be good for engagement, and it would be expensive.

So Why did Twitter Block the NY Post?

Why censor at all? This is an interesting question because Twitter’s censorship was not remotely effective at actually hiding the NY Post article or its existence from anyone who wanted to read it. I suspect this is because Twitter wanted to appear to be blocking the article but did not want to actually commit the resources to wipe any trace of it from their platform.

Twitter has taken a beating in the public eye over the last four years. They have been criticized for allowing Donald Trump’s account to remain in good standing while he constantly violates their terms of service in ways that would get other accounts banned. They have been criticized for allowing hordes of Russian bots to sow disinformation and distrust prior to and since the 2016 election. Both of those things are good for business but bad for optics. In this turbulent year of 2020 they’ve faced increased scrutiny from both external and internal critics.

Jack Dorsey claimed that blocking the NY Post was a simple mistake. I don’t believe that for a second. If that article were to tip the balance of the election towards Trump and if it were later debunked or proven to be a non-story, Twitter would face massive outcry from the left likely resulting in loss of revenue. So I believe they pulled one small lever to block something that had the potential to damage their already-shaky reputation. This way, they could always say to their angry users, “Hey, don’t blame us! We tried!” If Twitter really wanted to censor conservative views they have many more levers they could have pulled.

When to Get Worried

Big tech companies in the United States cannot effectively censor because the information will easily spread via their competitors. The information has too many paths to get to you and it is currently impossible to block them all. However, there are a few things to watch out for that could jeopardize this in the future.

  • A single company monopolizing most of the information delivery systems would be bad. For example, a merger of Google, Twitter, and Facebook would concentrate too much censorship power in one organization.
  • Censorship at the ISP level would be much more effective due to local monopolies. Many users cannot easily switch to an ISP that won’t censor the information they want to see. This is a good reason to support strong net neutrality rules like the ones the FCC removed in 2018.
  • Any laws that regulate what can be said on the internet would obviously be problematic. If such a law is passed AND survives legal challenges up to the Supreme Court then I would be very concerned.

I focused this post on one specific censorship choice by one specific company but I believe the arguments here can be applied to other Big Tech companies and other censorship decisions.

What About Section 230

Okay this has already been a pretty long post and my readership is nonexistent. I think a couple people might read the beginning of this post but I’m not confident anyone will finish it. If five people communicate to me that they read this far and are interested in my take on how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act fits into all of this, then I will write a post about it. Hopefully a shorter one.