In the past week, companies from nearly every sector of the tech industry have stopped supporting the content and apps that promote unfounded claims of voter fraud and incite violence against the US government. The most newsworthy of these moves involve social media platforms:
- Twitter initially banned President Trump for 12 hours while the riots were still happening, and subsequently decided to silence the account—and others associated with his campaign—through the inauguration on January 20. Twitter then blocked 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon beginning on the Friday following the riots.
- Facebook followed suit by banning Trump indefinitely from Facebook and Instagram. The company then pulled all content that called for individuals to “stop the steal.”
- Amazon dropped the contentious app Parler—where many insurrection participants posted videos from the riots at the Capitol—its web services. Parler followed the action with a lawsuit that accused the tech giant of antitrust violations, and Amazon countersued, claiming they dropped Parler for failing to moderate content that threatened individuals, minority groups, the media, professional athletes, teachers, and government officials.
- YouTube, with its relatively forgiving three strike rule, began removing content about voter fraud as early as July. The platform shut down Trump’s YouTube page for the week following the riot and has suspended comments on Trump’s channel.
Snapchat, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitch, Discord, Apple, Shopify, Stripe, Okta, and Twilio have all dropped the Trump campaign from their services, banned and removed content relating to the unfounded accusations of voter fraud, or pulled technical support for the Parler app.
What about the First Amendment?
The argument that individuals who post on these channels and the apps themselves have a right to free speech doesn’t hold up here, which is the most delicious irony of capitalism we may have seen in the recent past. Although Parler and the other apps that have popped up in its place can promise their customers a space to practice free speech, these apps have to agree to the terms of service of the companies that they work with. If the developer violates those terms—directly or by allowing app users to post content that violates the terms—the developer risks getting dropped from the store.
Could we see another Parler?
While apps and services may attempt to emerge as the next Parler, they’ll also have to battle the tech infrastructure to remain available for long. Today’s tech companies rarely build their products from the ground up. It’s not worth the resource investment. Instead, they rely on a vast network of software as a service to run: Server space, version control software, app stores, business intelligence tools, content management services, document storage, I could go on. An app builder must agree to the terms of service for each of these software providers to use their tools.
To protect themselves from legal troubles, continue to hire and retain top talent, and avoid getting dragged on Twitter, tech companies will continue to crack down on customers who knowingly allow their users to engage in fighting words that violate the First Amendment.
Moves to promote civil rights
Some tech companies are actively working to improve their policies and public image after a year or more of harsh criticism. Facebook named a Civil Rights VP to direct the protection of civil rights of users and employees. The lawyer, Roy L. Austin, Jr, has federal experience in civil rights at the US Department of Justice and the DC US Attorneys office. Austin’s hire and broader employee training will bring the discussion of civil rights issues into the planning process for new products.