Activists are uniting today to “break the internet.” They’re protesting what they view as a power grab by internet service providers (ISPs). Yet at a public forum last week, experts revealed how social media platforms have censored some viewpoints for years. These violations of free speech often go unnoticed, panelists said.
At the National Press Club, Jerry Johnson of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) hosted Senator Ted Cruz, former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell and Ralph Reed of Faith and Freedom Coalition. Craig Strazzeri of Prager University, a victim of internet censorship, shared the nonprofit’s story.
“The locus for power in media is no longer New York — it’s Silicon Valley,” said Senator Cruz, R-Tex. “Silicon Valley has the ability to put their thumb on the scale in a far more subtle and insidious way. Views that are unfavored simply disappear. Views they like magically bubble to the top.”
Help us champion truth, freedom, limited government and human dignity. Support The Stream »
Panelists showed how Facebook, Twitter and Google have censored viewpoints, usually conservative and Christian voices. An NRB website launched last week cites several recent examples.
For instance, many noted how social media titans censor pro-life viewpoints.
Censored by Old and New Media
Media have long sought to control what Live Action can say, notes founder Lila Rose. She answered questions via e-mail.
“We are using our own news websites and other social media platforms to reach over 15 million people every month,” says Rose. “That’s despite some in legacy media calling for the outright censorship of Live Action’s pro-life content and Twitter suppressing our ability to reach new audiences.”
She refers to two incidents. Last month, a New York Times editorial openly called on Facebook to censor Live Action’s content. “The writer opined about the desperate need for evidence-based articles and made claims that Live Action puts out misinformation, while citing absolutely no evidence to prove it,” says Rose.
A dust-up with Twitter in May also got the nation talking. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recounts: “Twitter has refused to sell Live Action advertising until Live Action removes tweets that show a pregnancy developing inside a mother.”
Rose notes the legal dispute is ongoing. “Twitter suppresses our pro-life content by unfairly applying its advertising policy,” she says. “They block our ads while allowing groups like Planned Parenthood to advertise without restriction. We will continue to expose abortion for the human rights abuse that it is.” She spoke with Tucker Carlson on Fox News regarding the incident.
Online Censorship of Prager University
Another example of censorship comes via YouTube, the world’s top video platform. On October 23, video producer Prager University sued Google in a U.S. district court for unlawful discrimination. The lawsuit concerns how 40 of PragerU’s 250 short videos have been tagged for restricted mode viewing.
“Someone has to take on Goliath,” said Craig Strazzeri, PragerU chief marketing officer. “Universities, public libraries and places of employment use restricted mode across their browsers. YouTube has decided that 40 of our videos meet their ‘restricted’ guidelines as either violent or sexual content. Yet they contain nothing of this nature.”
Their legal action claims restricted mode has been used as a “political gag mechanism,” violating First Amendment rights. Strazzeri noted that one in four Americans has viewed a PragerU video. This week, the popular video producer hit one billion total video views.
The panel comes at a flashpoint regarding internet freedom, centered on the issue of net neutrality.
Internet Deregulation Meets #Resistance
In April, the new head of the FCC announced plans to repeal net neutrality rules passed in 2015. The Obama-era rules applied Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 to internet service providers. This enabled the FCC to fine broadband providers in certain cases.
For instance, in 2008, Comcast slowed traffic from BitTorrent and the FCC attempted to sanction the internet service provider. Yet Comcast prevailed because the FCC had no legal basis. The 2015 rules gave the FCC such authority.
Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed reversing those policies, letting internet providers set their policies on traffic. “This is being reversed not even 36 months later,” said Robert McDowell, a former FCC commissioner. “The internet will remain open and free.”
Panelists emphasized how Facebook, Twitter and Google have practiced censorship of opposing viewpoints, usually conservative and Christian voices.
He cited other federal and local statutes as a bulwark to “keep the internet open and freedom-enhancing.” Others suggest innovation and falling prices will follow the repeal. Yet internet content platforms such as Facebook, Netflix and Google oppose the proposed policy change. Some have noted inconsistency in Comcast’s stance.
Activists claim Pai has sided with service providers like Comcast to give them more power. After six months of filing public complaints, thousands plan to broadcast their support for net neutrality today. Their recent tactics have included personal threats against Pai and his family.
“Ajit and I are personal friends,” McDowell said. “Please pray for his safety.”
Defending Free Speech for All
McDowell addressed one case where the president challenged free speech. In an October 11 tweet, President Trump criticized what he deemed “fake news” and asked, “At what point is it appropriate to challenge their license?”
“The chairman got some criticism for not speaking out for about a week,” said McDowell. “But Chairman Pai’s remarks were crystal clear. Broadcast licenses are not going to be in danger due to the political speech that they air. Pai said this would be the free speech FCC.”
NRB President Jerry Johnson also pushed back against the White House statement. “I don’t try to chase the president’s tweets,” said Johnson. “But that day I did, because it’s our signature issue. First Amendment freedoms apply to both sides. I understand his impulse, but in details that’s not right.”
Johnson also addressed a seeming contradiction. NRB represents thousands of radio stations that air only Christian viewpoints. How can they criticize platforms like Facebook for discriminating against some viewpoints?
“Christian broadcasters are advocates for the Christian worldview,” said Johnson. “They don’t pretend to be some kind of a public square. When people Google, they’re expecting the equivalent of an encyclopedia. Facebook says it’s where Americans have community. We’re expecting some kind of objective results, and they present themselves that way. [But] it’s an openness they are not delivering.”
Senator Ted Cruz offered a robust defense of religious freedom. “They are speakers who are entitled to express their views,” he said of religious broadcasters.
Cruz continued: “A radio station is entitled just like a Christian pastor is entitled to preach a Christian sermon. A Jewish rabbi is entitled to preach from the Torah. A Muslim imam is entitled to preach Islam. And an atheist is entitled to proselytize that there is no god.”
“That’s what religious freedom means. And that’s what free speech means.”