Do Google and Facebook engage in what lawyers call viewpoint discrimination? There’s some pretty good evidence that they do. Consider the lawsuit that radio talk show host Dennis Prager is bringing against Google. He alleges that YouTube, owned by Google (and its parent company Alphabet), puts his Prager University videos in restricted mode, but does not give similar treatment to videos from liberal sources.
Anyone familiar with Prager’s writings knows that they’re intellectually serious and far from abusive. He is a persistent but temperate advocate.
Until recently, Google hasn’t issued a public comment on the lawsuit. When it finally did, it started off with a typical Silicon Valley boilerplate about its dedication to free speech (“YouTube is an open platform”), quickly followed up with Silicon Valley boilerplate which, translated from the Orwellian, declares that Google actually isn’t so dedicated to free speech (“we provide different choices and settings. Restricted mode is an optional feature used by a small subset of users to filter out videos that may include sensitive or mature content”). It’s what “Congress has encouraged online services to provide for parents and others interested in a more family-friendly experience online.” As I wrote about the case of its firing of engineer James Damore last summer, Google is engaging in Orwellian doublespeak: free exchange of ideas means free exchange of ideas we approve.
All of which avoids the central question in the lawsuit, which is not whether YouTube consumers can choose restricted mode, but the criteria by which Google designates certain videos and not others as restricted. That designation restricts its circulation, as Google implicitly concedes. If, as is alleged and seems likely here, the designation is applied so as to discriminate against conservative videos, Google is engaged in viewpoint discrimination.
Let’s turn to Facebook, which according to author James Bovard blocked his post labeled “Janet Reno, Tyrant or Saint?” and including video of the burning of the Branch Davidian compound during an FBI raid in 1993. When he retitled the post, “Janet Reno, American Saint,” and substituted an official portrait of the late attorney general for the Branch Davidian burning, his post was immediately accepted. A Facebook spokesman explained, “There was an image in the post that incorrectly triggered our automation tools. That issue has been corrected.”
But the very fact that one of the most newsworthy videos of the 1990s was suppressed puts an Orwellian cast on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Orwellian assurance that his goal is “to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy.” Bovard points out that Facebook complies with censorship laws in other countries and, in its newly proclaimed responsibility to filter out “fake news” is at risk of ongoing viewpoint discrimination in the United States.
I’m not reassured by the news, related by Bovard, that Facebook announced in May it was hiring 3,000 “content reviewers to scrutinize and delete offensive or improper postings or false information.” Where will it find these 3,000 individuals? Presumably from where Silicon Valley hires so many people, off the selective college and university campuses where, in most cases, free speech is systematically suppressed and where many beliefs of mainstream conservatives are widely regarded, and by those in authority, as “hate speech” and “fake news.” Slightly post-adolescent left-wing dweebs will be in charge of what Americans can and can’t say publicly. The prospect is that, purposely or not, and in blatant disregard of their leaders’ professions that they stand for free exchange of ideas, Google and Facebook will systematically engage in viewpoint discrimination that favors one side of the political argument and disfavors others. “Will” may be the wrong word; there are indications, such as the two cited here, they’re already doing so.
My own response is to replace Google as my default search engine and to never look at my Facebook page. But, also and worryingly, I find myself looking with more favor on the arguments that Google and Facebook have become monopolies which should be vulnerable to legal sanction under the antitrust laws. If we don’t let the government impose a censorship regime on the entire society, why should we allow these private companies do so? There may be good answers to that question, but it’s not good to have it as a question to ask.