Gab is an app similar to twitter but it has a more permissive speech policy. According to company spokesman Utsav Sanduja, “Whatever is permissible under the First Amendment is what Gab allows onto its site.” Gab has attracted some users from the alt-right and seemingly for this reason Gab has been banned by both Google and Apple. I wouldn’t go so far as Aaron Renn who argues that “Google and Apple have used their duopoly status to revoke the First Amendment on mobile phones” but I do find these actions troubling.
I have no problem with Twitter or Facebook policing their sites for content they find objectionable, such as pornography or hate speech, even though these are permitted under the First Amendment. A free market in news doesn’t mean that every newspaper must cover every story. A free market in news means free entry. But free entry is exactly what is now at stake. Gab was created, in part, to combat what was seen as Facebook’s bias against conservative news and views. If Gab or services like cannot be accessed via the big platforms that is a significant barrier to entry.
When Facebook and Twitter regulate what can be said on their platforms and Google and Apple regulate who can provide a platform, we have a big problem. It’s as if the NYTimes and the Washington Post were the only major newspapers and the government regulated who could own a printing press.
In a pure libertarian world, I’d be inclined to say that Google and Apple can also police whom they allow on their platforms. But we live in a world in which Google and Apple are bound up with and in some ways beholden to the government. I worry when a lot of news travels through a handful of choke points.
I also fear that Google and Apple haven’t thought very far down the game tree. One of the arguments for leaving the meta-platforms alone is that they are facially neutral with respect to content. But if Google and Apple are explicitly exercising their power over speech on moral and political grounds then they open themselves up to regulation. If code is law then don’t be surprised when the legislators demand to write the code.
These problems are arising in many fields not just news. As Politico noted, OKCupid has banned users accused of being white supremacists and asked members to report “people involved in hate groups.” AirBnb took it even one step further and “jettisoned the accounts of users it suspected of renting rooms to attendees of the “Unite the Right” event.” So it wasn’t even white supremacists who were banned but people who rented to them. What is next? Will white supremacists be banned from lunch counters? Sure, that prospect might generate a frisson of excitement but is that the kind of society we want to live in? And are we so sure that the tables will never turn again?