Publisher or Platform – time to choose

With social media companies such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, permanently removing accounts even as powerful as the President of the United States, and today the addition of Amazon dropping Parler from their AWS platform, I think it’s time for a serious discussion before this goes too far. Bear with me – you don’t have to like my politics, but I think this particular topic transcends that issue.

Most of you aren’t computer geeks, and don’t care to be, so many of you won’t know the ramifications of what’s going on if we don’t break it down a little. (I mean explain, not mansplain. There is a difference.)

Issues of recent note:

There are a few examples lately everyone is familiar with. I’m going to shorten the list down to manageable pieces for the purposes of conversation.

Social media platforms

  • Twitter: Banned Trump’s account because they are worried he will use it to incite further violence.
  • Facebook/Instagram: Banned Trump’s account for the same reason.
  • All these social media platforms have banned other accounts, usually loud conservative voices, for the similar reasons.

Hosting platforms

  • Apple App Store/Google Play Store: Banned Parler because they were used to incite rioting and even included posts suggesting the assassination of elected officials, not to mention being used as a staging platform to organize such things.
  • Amazon: Kicked Parler off it’s web-hosting services (which basically means they said “you can no longer use us to provide your website to the world) for the same reason.

Why are the two distinctions above important? Well they actually are pretty important because they bring up two different issues.

Social media platforms:

Social media is where YOU speak whatever YOU want on a service THEY provide, usually for free. So you’re not paying for anything. And no, you have no first-amendment protections. There have never ever been first amendment protections on the internet because these are private/public companies, not the government that’s providing them.

Facebook, Twitter, or anyone else can kick you off their platform for not acting within their terms of service.

As much as I’m a Republican, I’ve also been using, selling, and programming on the internet since it was first birthed and provided to the masses. (Yeah, I even had a geocities page before it was cool.) So, republican or not, I can appreciate Twitter and Facebook taking at least a temporary stance on Trump’s accounts to prevent them from being complicit if he did it again. He incited a riot that physically invaded the Capitol building when Congress was in session, something that hasn’t happened in almost two centuries in this country. It was a major mistake on his part in my opinion. Moreover, with 11 days until the inauguration they are scared he could/would do it again. Fine. I can understand limiting his accounts for a short time, though there’s absolutely no law that says they can’t kick him off forever. It happens to people all the time and it’s their product. They get to choose who can and can’t use it. Let’s let that simmer for a minute and I’ll come back to it.

Hosting companies:

Amazon AWS is a web host, much like SiteGround is the web host I’m using to bring this site to you. If a domain name is the neon sign over a building on the internet advertising where you are, then the host is the retail brick and mortar company where the business resides. They are my landlord if you’re reading this blog post. I am the author. I’m the “publisher” and they are the platform. If you wanted to sue someone, you’d sue me, right? You wouldn’t sue siteground for being my host.

Parler (the mobile phone app) is delivered to customers via Apple’s app store and Google’s play store. (the website) is delivered to your browser by Amazon’s AWS platform. It’s where the information you read is physically sitting at. Make sense? They are the platforms. They don’t write the stuff that people are pissed about. They just provide the place for others to write it.

Why did Google/Apple/Amazon ban Parler?

Parler came about in 2018 when some guy thought he’d make a competitor for Facebook that wouldn’t be censored. His apparent naive belief was that the internet is a place to say anything you want and Facebook didn’t let people do that, so he’d create a place where you could.

Well, I predicted this six months ago, but I’ll briefly outline it again. The reason that Parler was left alone without having to moderate anything (including porn, and conversations about assassinating elected politicians) was because no one cared. They were a tiny no-nothing company that no one was using and it wasn’t worth the effort to shut them down. Why swat that fly on my desk if I’m just going to have to clean the desk later? It’s not that Parler wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t worth the Windex… truly. That’s the reason it’s been left alone this long.

Lately, however, all the WAY FAR right have moved over to Parler. Not only have they provided a place to talk about insurrection, taking down the government, killing elected officials, etc – but the users are so inept, so stupid, that they do it openly. They literally discuss this stuff openly on the website -proving once again that people are idiots.

Apple and Google have certain rules if you’re going to host an app in their app store, and they review them all the time. I know because I have to update my own few apps every so often when they change the rules or update policies.

One of those rules is that if you’re going to provide an open platform for discussion, you’re required to moderate it to some extent. For example, you can’t host an app on the website that integrates to a website that supports child porn, or selling kids into prostitution, or selling drugs. These are all common sense things right? You also have to moderate posts that condone killing people.

Parler didn’t do that.

So, fine, I agree that they were rightly removed from the app stores. Amazon booted them today for just about the same reason. Makes sense to me. Can you imagine if someone had been killed, it had been linked back to a conversation on the Parler app, and Google/Apple had been sued for providing the tools that made it possible? That’s their concern. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s any altruistic reason. These rules exist solely to prevent lawsuits, and under that guise I support their decision.

Amazon made the same decision today with their AWS platform. They basically came into the offices of Parler and said “Hey, asshole! I’m not saying you can’t do this stuff, but I’m saying you can’t do it in my building. You’re being evicted. Get out!”

They did it for the same reasons Apple and Google did. Again, I don’t disagree with their reasoning. Parler can host anywhere that will agree to rent to them, but just like with other businesses, they’re going to likely have hard time finding a US-based company that’s going to host them. If you’re one of the select few companies in the world blackballed by even Amazon, you’re not likely to find a warm reception elsewhere. Sure they can host on some no-name hosting company, but that’s like trying to move a 50 story sky-scraper’s worth of users and information into a renovated dry-cleaners on the sketchy side of town. It’s just not going to work for them.

Has Big Tech Crossed A Line?

I can justifiably argue that all the things that have happened so far are exactly what just about any company in these guys shoes would do. There are those that say they wouldn’t. OK. I’m betting none of you that disagree have law firms that cost you hundreds of millions of dollars a year either – so you’re mostly talking about stuff you don’t really understand. It comes down to this:

  • Facebook: Doesn’t want to be held liable/sued if someone dies and they can be blamed.
  • Twitter: Doesn’t want to be held liable/sued if someone dies and they can be blamed.
  • Google: Doesn’t want to be held liable/sued if someone dies and they can be blamed.
  • Apple: Doesn’t want to be held liable/sued if someone dies and they can be blamed.
  • Amazon: Doesn’t want to be held liable/sued if someone dies and they can be blamed.

Do you see a trend developing here? All it would take is ONE lawsuit that caught traction and these companies would immediately be inundated with lawsuits for every wrongful death that could ever be reasonably argued to have happened because of postings on their networks or by means of their tools.

But…. there’s one more thing the public needs to understand and most of them don’t. Again, this is one of those things that requires context so please bear with me.

What is section 230 and why the hell do I care?

The internet was just learning to walk back in 1996. Things like social media weren’t even thought of yet. The closest thing we had to that were forums and message boards – and those were lightyears beyond the older text based systems. But for the first time, people were publishing stuff that stayed online… it just sat there… you could come find it anytime by typing in a .com name and reading what someone had to say.

Naturally, there were bad actors even back then. Eventually the communications decency act came about. It’s also known by it’s less-illustrious title of “Title 47 of US Code.”

Like any government document, it has sections. Section 230 is the one that’s really important here (in my opinion).

Section 230 reads basically that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

It was designed to protect ISPs, web hosts, and other companies from being liable for what other said on their platform. I’ll dumb it down and give you an example.

John Doe is a dirty rotten scumbag. He gets caught posting kiddie porn on the internet and trying to sell his underage daughter as a prostitute. Well, that’s a crime obviously.

Before Section 230 came about, rather than do the smart thing and sue John Doe and hold him liable for his actions, people tried all kinds of stupid crap. They sued the web host that made it possible by providing a place for John Doe to post his stuff. Even though it was his own .com domain, they sued Geocities for hosting it. Well, that’s not right. They didn’t know about it. How could they?

So then people would try to sue AOL for providing the internet that John Doe used to post it. That was equally as stupid but people tried it. It’s like suing the post office for delivering his kiddie porn rather than the company that provided it to him. The delivery mechanism had no way to know what it was being used for. Duh!

So, section 230 was born.

It basically states, in really simple terms, that companies are platforms, not publishers. They provide a place for publishers (people or companies) to write their own material and that the platform itself isn’t responsible for the material posted by the users.

A whole new age of internet freedoms was born! Without section 230, companies like Facebook and Twitter would never have existed. It provides them the protection to make a product that anyone can use to share whatever they want with the world. It allows YouTube to provide a place for you to host videos. It allows Facebook to give you a place to share your family photos or memes with the world. It provides Twitter a plate for people to share stupid memes with people, etc.

Here is my argument… finally.

I understand Section 230 protections and I fully and openly support them. I also understand that companies have to moderate content to some extent in this day and age. No one with any sense can argue that. If it’s illegal, or discriminatory, or obviously hateful (according to some agreed-upon metric) then it gets deleted, silenced, removed, etc.

However, as much as I agree with moderation of content and with section 230 protections, there is a line.

It’s perfectly acceptable (to me) to have Twitter remove Tweets from the President if he uses it to incite a riot. He did. They did. Ok. Fine. Not a fan, but I get it.

It’s perfectly acceptable for Facebook to take down a post when a user shares something totally inappropriate or hateful. Ok. Fine.

Eventually these platforms usually have policies where they will give you one strike, two strikes, and then you’re out. If they have to spend time moderating you past a certain point they just pull your account because you’re more headache than you’re worth. After all, it’s not up to them to have to pay people specifically to moderate content you’re being allowed to share for free. That’s an undue burden on them. Ok. I see that as it applies to the “normal” users.

But somewhere along the way in these last couple of days, my fear is that platform companies are crossing the line into becoming editors. And do you know who has editors? Publishers have editors. Newspapers have editors. Magazines have editors. People who CREATE content have editors.

If you are a platform, you’re entitled to section 230 protections, but if you’re a publisher, you aren’t and shouldn’t be. When Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and others take on the responsibility of deciding what people should and shouldn’t be able to access and read, they are now publishers of content, not merely platforms. And I think that’s crossing a line.

At some point, the closing off of one side of political speech becomes combative and needs to be addressed. Don’t get me wrong. My personal politics have nothing to do with this. I’ve never once, ever, said someone’s Facebook page or Twitter account should be restricted, whether I agreed with them or not. Then again, I’m enough of a grown-up not to be butthurt over speech I don’t like. I don’t have to support your speech to support your right to share it.

And again, this isn’t a “free-speech” issue as many of these dummies claim. There is no free speech on the internet. Never has been. Never will be. Unlike most of the US, I remember my US history and civics classes.

But there is a principle of fairness that has to be applied or at some point, enough people are going to justifiably rise up that it WILL become an issue that causes significant strife in this country. (past tense maybe?) After all, perception is reality and if the perception is that conservative voices can’t be heard or are being aggressively silenced on “platforms” where the opposing view is clearly heard, there’s going to be problem.

Part of the issue is comparing apples to apples in these discussions. It’s definitely hard to argue that democratic and liberal voices are being silenced. After all they’re asking for free stuff, recognition of whatever cause they feel is being repressed that day, etc. That’s not “hurting” anyone. Their arguments are “what’s best for all” so it’s hard to call it hate speech even though I might disagree with it. It’s passive-agressive to be sure from my side of the aisle, but it’s not hate speech to most people. And of course there is the ever-present BLM side of things. They surely aren’t being silenced en-masse for the obvious reason – the reason that no platform in the nation would face the lawsuit of trying silence a prominent black voice in the midst of the racial unrest we’re facing right now. It might be “unfair” to some, but the argument that they’ve been silenced for long enough still resonates with many, so I say let Freedom Ring and let them all be heard.

The conservative side is angry and calling for people to rise up against the government, up to and including removing them from office and storming the building to protest. It’s easier to label that as damaging. I concede that. It’s a much easier target because its loud, in your face, and downright argumentative and hostile 99% of the time. There are very few of us out there trying to speak like rational adults.

But… the ability and methods of our people (all Americans) to rise up to protect ourselves, even from a tyrannical government, are even protected and enshrouded within our constitution itself. Our forefathers planned for and worried about the government overtaking the people and provided them the 2nd amendment protections to protect specifically against it. (No, this isn’t a 2A discussion, so please don’t get lost down that rabbit hole.) I just provided that as a groundwork statement to show that even back then, they wanted to ensure the people could rise up against tyranny if needed.

At some point, we have to admit that both sides deserve a voice. If Facebook and Twitter are going to actively censor arguably the most vocal outspoken person(s) on the entire planet for conservative values – to the point of totally silencing those voices so they cant’ even speak, then they are in fact deciding what can and can’t be talked about and that makes them publishers; no different than a news agency, and we should remove the section 230 protections that protect them and treat them accordingly.

If not, then maybe we do need some change in other areas. If Facebook and Twitter have enjoyed such growth as to be part of the national election process, and to profit handsomely from that participation, they maybe we need to REQUIRE them to create new methodologies whereby both sides can be equally represented. Maybe we DO require certain types of accounts to remain active, even if that means these platforms have to expend the manpower and energy to constantly review and fact-check them.

I’ll concede that this would also mean certain lines can’t be crossed. Advocating the killing, or harm of another would be one such line. Inciting protests at the Capitol should be fine, but inciting people to break INTO a building is a line that needs to be maintained – regardless what building it is. If 30,000 people had simply stood outside the Capitol building and refused to go home until they were heard, it would have made a much stronger point than what happened the other day. After all, where is the Mayor of DC going to put 30,000 people in jails? It wouldn’t happen. Alas, people were stupid.

However, insurrection itself isn’t (in my opinion) speech that should be outlawed. If we outlaw speech against the government, no matter how divisive the topic might be, we really ARE destroying our American system of government. After all, if enough people speak up and want our system to change, then it must change. And just because it changes doesn’t mean the right of the other side to be heard should become invalid.

There needs to be some decisions made, and quickly, as to what roles social media and hosting platforms are to have. Either they let all sides of a conversation (that are legal) be heard, or they admit that they are no different than any other publisher of content and should be regulated as such.



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