Friday, October 16, 2020

Censorship is bad even when it’s done by private companies (English)

Заметка полностью. Форматирование сохранено.

NOTE: This post is a slightly longer version of a piece I recently published on The Federalist. Their editor asked me to cut some passages because it was a bit long, but I figured that readers of my blog would prefer the director’s cut, so here is the full version.

For several years, conservatives have expressed concern that big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, are suppressing right-leaning content in various, more or less direct ways. Even though conservatives often exaggerate it, I think there is no doubt about the anti-conservative bias of these companies, but that is not what I want to discuss in this article. Rather, I want to argue that, if big tech companies are biased against some ideas and are suppressing content on ideological grounds, then it’s bad even though they are non-state actors. In fact, the claim I want to make is even weaker, it’s that anyone who would worry about this kind of bias on the part of the state should also worry about it when it comes from big tech companies.

Ниже есть продолжение.

This is a very weak claim, which I think should be largely uncontroversial, but many people deny it, including some conservatives and many libertarians. In particular, it doesn’t imply that big tech companies should be regulated by the government, which requires a separate argument. Indeed, as conservatives often point out, the existence of a market imperfection doesn’t mean that government intervention is justified, if only because it may actually make the problem worse. But as many people don’t seem to understand, especially among libertarians, the fact that government intervention is not warranted doesn’t mean there is no problem.

It’s also a vague claim that, in order to be acted upon, would have to be made more precise. What I claim should be uncontroversial is that, if you think it would be bad if the government were ideologically biased and suppressed content for ideological reasons, you should also think it’s bad if big tech companies do it. But this leaves a lot of room for rational disagreement about what constitutes bias and what counts as suppressing content for ideological reasons. In particular, the issue of fairness in algorithms is very complicated, so reasonable people disagree about what a fair algorithm is.

Fortunately, I don’t need to resolve this question here, it’s enough for the point I want to make that, among the people who defend big tech companies by saying that, even if the accusations of bias are true, it’s not a problem, most would protest if the government did what those companies allegedly do. Again, what I’m attacking is the idea that censorship is only bad if it comes from the government, but that as long as it’s done by private companies, there is nothing to see. This is a ridiculous idea that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and, whatever your view about what constitutes bias in algorithms and whether big tech companies should be regulated, you should acknowledge that. I know that some people, especially among libertarians, think it makes them smart to believe that, but they clearly have not thought this through.

There are many reasons to oppose state censorship, but the people who argue that it’s okay for big tech companies to suppress content for ideological reasons on their platforms oppose it on the ground that it prevents the marketplace of ideas, which they believe maximizes the probability that people will discover the truth and settle on it through rational debate, from working as it’s supposed to. The problem is that, if that’s why you oppose state censorship, and to be clear I think it’s a good reason to oppose it, there is nothing about the state that makes censorship bad when it originates from the government but unproblematic as long as it comes from private companies. Indeed, while it’s true that the government can distort the marketplace of ideas, so can private companies.

For instance, if Google makes it harder to find right-wing content, it stacks the deck in favor of the left, because people are more likely to be only exposed to left-wing content. Similarly, if Twitter hides content by conservatives and/or promotes content by liberals, the former are less likely to be heard. Big tech companies don’t even have to completely suppress right-wing content to distort the marketplace of ideas. Even a pro-liberal/anti-conservative bias that comes way short of the systematic suppression of right-wing content would introduce a distortion. Of course, as long as big tech companies are biased in the relevant way, it doesn’t matter which ideologies are penalized by it, it will distort the marketplace of ideas all the same.

The people who defend big tech companies argue that it’s not the same on the ground that if people are unhappy about what those companies do, they can always stop using them and use other platforms instead, whereas people can’t opt out of the government. If the state bans the expression of certain views and you express them anyway, it can use violence to compel you to stop and imprison you, but Google or Twitter can’t do that. However, since the companies in question are de facto monopolies, it’s not actually true that if you’re unhappy with big tech companies you can just use another platform. Moreover, even if it were true, it would be irrelevant.

First, it’s not always true that, if you’re unhappy with big tech companies, you can always stop using it and use another platform instead. For instance, if you’re a journalist and you want to promote your work, there is simply no viable alternative to Twitter at the moment. No other microblogging platform comes even close to having the number of users Twitter does, and most of the alternatives are hotbeds of extremism, so that anyone who joins them is thereby disqualified in polite company. People who reply that, if Twitter were so bad, a viable alternative would have emerged are just missing the point. Of course, it’s possible that, if Twitter’s behavior were really egregious, it would lose its dominant position to other platforms, but its monopoly power means that it can get away with a lot without endangering that position. Again, for bias to distort the marketplace of ideas, it isn’t necessary that Twitter completely suppress certain viewpoints.

Moreover, even when there are liable alternatives, as long as the vast majority of people are not using them, their existence is completely irrelevant to the argument against censorship by big tech companies. For instance, there are several alternatives to Google, but it doesn’t change the fact that more than 90% of online searches are made on Google. Thus, if Google’s search results are ideologically biased, the marketplace of ideas will be distorted. The fact that people could use another search engine, while absolutely true, is neither here nor there. The argument that censorship is bad because it distorts the marketplace of ideas has nothing to do with personal responsibility. Even if people could easily opt out of the government, as long as most people don’t, state censorship is still bad, because it still distorts the marketplace of ideas. Beside, people may not even be aware that they are being manipulated, so pointing out what people could do if they were is largely beside the point anyway.

Some even go further and claim that, even if big tech companies are somewhat biased against conservatives and penalize their content to some extent, they should be grateful to them, on the ground that without platforms such as YouTube they wouldn’t be able to reach as many people. This last part is probably true, but the argument is still ridiculous. Suppose that your electricity company, which has a monopoly in your area, charged Democrats more than Republicans. I don’t think that, in this situation, anyone would say that Democrats would be ungrateful to complain, on the ground that without that company they wouldn’t even have the electricity. It doesn’t matter that, thanks to big tech companies, conservatives can reach more people. As long as they are biased against them and penalize their content, it will still distort the marketplace of ideas in favor of the left and this is bad.

The irony is that, while the people who defend big tech companies in that way usually see themselves as part of the classical liberal tradition, the great authors in that tradition have all insisted that government was not the only or even the main threat to freedom. The obsession with the treat posed to freedom by state power, to the exclusion of almost everything else, is something that is only found among contemporary libertarians but that was foreign to the thinkers they claim as their intellectual forebears. And despite what they might say, it can’t just be explained by the fact that state power has grown immensely since the 19th century, if only because so has the power of corporations. Unfortunately, judging from what they say, most of the people who say that censorship by private companies is unproblematic have never read the authors who founded the tradition they claim as their own.

For instance, John Stuart Mill, who is arguably the most famous thinker in the liberal tradition, wrote in On Liberty:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

This is but one of many passages in this book, published in 1859, where Mill insists on the dangers that non-state actors pose to freedom.

In Democracy in America published in 1835, Tocqueville had already expressed a similar concern for the threat to freedom of thought non-state actors could pose:

If great writers have not at present existed in America, the reason is very simply given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes the wish of publishing them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but, to say the truth, there is no public organ of infidelity. Attempts have been made by some governments to protect the morality of nations by prohibiting licentious books. In the United States no one is punished for this sort of works, but no one is induced to write them; not because all the citizens are immaculate in their manners, but because the majority of the community is decent and orderly.

Incidentally, in the age of “cancel culture”, this passage is worth meditating independently of the topic of the present article.

Of course, these passages are about the stifling effect of social pressure on people’s thoughts and behaviors, which is different though not entirely unrelated to what is going on with big tech companies. But they demonstrate that great authors in the liberal tradition, such as Mill and Tocqueville (as well as many others), but not many contemporary libertarians who claim to represent this tradition today, understood that the state is not the only or even necessarily the worst threat to freedom. Once you recognize that, it becomes impossible, when someone brings up the possibility that e. g. Google manipulates search results, to just cut short the discussion by saying that it’s a private company, so there is nothing to see. Not only is this not a good argument, it’s not even an argument, only the libertarian equivalent of reciting the credo for a catholic.

In a speech he delivered in 1922, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was hardly a conservative, put the point in a way that is more directly relevant to the question I’m discussing in this article:

Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.

Obviously, big tech companies didn’t exist when Russell wrote that, but what he says about the importance that arguments from all sides be readily accessible is directly relevant to the debate about the manipulations of search results by Google.

Thus, there can be little doubt that, were they alive today, the great thinkers in the liberal tradition would not agree with the myopic obsession with state censorship displayed by some of the people who claim to be their intellectual heirs. You can decide that, unless it’s done by the state, it’s not really censorship, but that’s a purely semantic point. Sure, you can say that if you want (though I don’t think that’s how the word is actually used by ordinary people), but only idiots think it shows that it’s not a problem. Similarly, and I know this is difficult to understand for many libertarians, you can recognize that this kind of censorship, or whatever you want to call it, is bad while thinking that state intervention would actually make things even worse. As I have been stressing throughout this article, those are distinct issues, which can and must be distinguished.

The notion that censorship, broadly construed to include even ideological bias that doesn’t rise to the level of systematic suppression of certain viewpoints, is okay as long as it’s not done by the government is preposterous. It’s the kind of things one says, not because one has thought it through and has a reasonable argument for one’s position, but rather because one rigidly adheres to a dogma according to which censorship is only bad when it’s done by the government and there is nothing to worry about as long as it’s done by private companies. Again, it doesn’t follow that big tech companies should be regulated by the government, but we should at least acknowledge that it’s a problem. If you don’t think it’s a problem that e. g. Google, which has a virtual monopoly on Internet search, can manipulate search results for ideological reasons, perhaps a problem that state intervention would only make worse but a problem nonetheless, then you may think that you’re very sophisticated, but actually you are just being ridiculous.

In my opinion, the line of argument I have developed in this piece should be embraced not only by conservatives, but also by anyone who is attached to freedom of expression in a suitably broad sense. In fact, although it can be leveraged against big tech companies that are biased in favor of liberals, this line of argument also has implications that conservatives may less readily welcome. For instance, it means that how rich people use their money to promote their ideas may also be a problem, insofar as it distorts the marketplace of ideas. Again, it doesn’t imply that regulations should be put in place by the government to restrict the ways in which people can use their wealth to promote their ideas, but if conservatives want to protest against big tech companies on the ground that, by suppressing right-wing content, they are distorting the marketplace of ideas, they can’t talk as if this couldn’t also be a concern.

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