I am very grateful for David French’s essay in the Times today, because it cuts the Gordian knot of my own thinking about Alex Jones.
There are reasons to be deeply concerned that the tech companies banned Alex Jones. In short, the problem isn’t exactly what they did, it’s why they did it.
Rather than applying objective standards that resonate with American law and American traditions of respect for free speech and the marketplace of ideas, the companies applied subjective standards that are subject to considerable abuse. Apple said it “does not tolerate hate speech.” Facebook accused Mr. Jones of violating policies against “glorifying violence” or using “dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants.” YouTube accused Mr. Jones of violating policies against “hate speech and harassment.”
David’s alternative: Use the standards already enshrined in law and custom, specifically prohibitions against libel and slander.
I have always been more sympathetic to what people call “censorship” than most of my colleagues on the right (though my views have changed a bit over the last 16 years). I certainly have no problem with private entities — including corporations such as Google and Apple, but also every journalistic enterprise — using their own judgment about what kind of speech they will publish or associate with.
National Review, I am very confident, would never dream of running an essay by Alex Jones, because he’s an execrable troll who monetizes paranoia and fear-mongering with a stunning disregard for the truth or basic decency (he’s also not a conservative). At the same time, we have an absolute right to run an essay by him if we chose to.
But part of the problem is that platforms such as Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. operate almost like public utilities. Indeed that’s one of the ironies about the battle lines drawn over Alex Jones. As a broad generalization, the people who loved net neutrality, precisely because they want the Internet to be like a public utility, cheered Big Internet for banning Jones from its platforms. Meanwhile, many of the people who hated net neutrality were outraged by the idea that private companies could “censor” voices they didn’t like. A real public utility can’t deny services to customers just because it doesn’t like what they say or think.
One of the reasons I didn’t like net neutrality is that when you treat private enterprises like corporatist partners of the state, they become corporatist partners of the state. I don’t want the government to be invested in any private business for a host of reasons, not least among them: because the state will never stop attaching more strings to their symbiotic relationship. Another reason: Such public-private partnerships are problematic in any economic realm, but they are particularly pernicious when issues of political speech are involved. Also: They are inherently monopolistic insofar as the state becomes invested in the entities it controls and seeks to protect them from the creative destruction of the market. I want to live in a country where Google and Facebook can be rendered obsolete by something better, without the state rushing to their rescue.
David’s proposal cuts through the problem by eliminating the “eye of the beholder” problem that is inherent to banning hate speech or “hate speech” (i.e., stuff woke activists just don’t want to hear). Forbidding demagogues the freedom to lie and slander on their platforms is a viewpoint-neutral solution that still protects the autonomy of private entities. It’s defensible in court and in the court of public opinion. And it would still lead to the same outcome in the case of Alex Jones, which would be a drawback for his defenders but a boon to the rest of us.