Facebook’s oversight board has just voted that the company may want to return its boots to Trump.
The board’s decision to uphold the decision to ban Trump but reconsider his lifelong ban may seem transparent to many. There are precedents, however. One of my favorite reports from the trial comes from Ireland, where an Irishman was accused by an Englishman of stealing a pair of boots. The guilt of the accused was absolutely clear, but the Irish jury could not bring itself to decide in favor of the Englishman. Instead, it acquitted the Irish, but added a line: “We believe O’Brien should return his boots to the Englishman.” Case closed.
Few people thought that after years of expanding censorship from politicians like Trump, Facebook could ever muster the courage to declare itself wrong in the ban first imposed on January 7, 2021. Instead, the board decided that it was absolutely right to suspend the Trump suspension, but it may want to reconsider the permanent ban as there is no objective standard to support it. So Trump will still get the boat for the time being. In the meantime, Facebook will continue its insidious campaign to get people to move forward on regulations that affect privacy and freedom of speech.
It may be too hard to expect anything more from a board that literally oversees one of the world’s largest censorship programs. Facebook, Twitter, and other companies are now openly committed to what they euphemistically refer to as “content change.” The decision reflects the convoluted logic of the censor’s Free Speech Examination Board. The company – and the board of directors – believe it can and should censor views that are deemed “misinformation” or dangerous. The starting point is therefore that censorship is justified and that content neutrality is dangerous.
The Board’s position on the non-standard permanent bans policy ignores the fact that its temporary suspension policy is also non-standard. The company cited the response to Trump’s speech by a third party as opposed to a specific call by Trump to commit violence. It does not take the same position when similar words are used by people like Rep. Maxine Water (D., Cal.) During protests. The board fears that the permanent ban is not based on state policy and that such limitless authority should affect everyone. As a matter of fact. Just as we are affected by the limitless authority that is imposed on suspensions.
Recently, Facebook banned not only the posts but also the voice of Donald Trump. In the so-called Zuckerberg standard “Who shouldn’t be heard”, Facebook blocked an interview by Trump with his daughter-in-law Lara Trump. The company said it would censor any content “in the voice of Donald Trump”. So if Trump whispered his answers to his daughter-in-law, she could say the words. This is not referred to as an “indefinite and standard penalty”.
Even Facebook’s self-criticism for acting without a definitive standard is contradicting itself. If your company has permanently banned someone without a foundation or standard, then why is the natural response to seek a standard rather than lifting the ban without a standard? This is not a pre-trial detention for re-conviction. The board concluded that there was never a set basis or guideline for any decision to permanently ban Trump. It’s like a judge saying I believe the police had a reason to arrest you, but I can’t see any reason to keep you in jail indefinitely. . . So I’ll stay in jail while we try to find out if we’ve ever had a reason to keep you in jail indefinitely.
But that’s the logic if your natural default is “content modification” and voice control.
Most alarmingly, Facebook, Twitter, and other businesses have been defended by Democratic leaders, writers, and academics. In fact, the Atlantic published an article by Harvard Law School Professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona Law Professor Andrew Keane Woods calling for Chinese Internet censorship. They stated that “in the great debate over the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States largely wrong” and “significant surveillance and voice control are inevitable parts of a mature and thriving Internet.”
Democratic leaders like Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) Have warned big tech corporations to be careful that there is no “relapse or withdrawal” due to the “robust content change” required. Many commentators on the left have become intrepid facilitators of not only censorship but corporate censorship as well.
The usual rationalization is that these companies are not subject to the first change so there is no freedom of speech. The first change is not synonymous with more general values of freedom of speech. Private corporations can continue to destroy freedom of expression through private censorship. This applies in particular to companies that not only operate platforms for communication, but also receive immunity from legal disputes because they would be neutral providers of such platforms. Imagine if your telephone company had set itself the task of interfering with phone calls to object to something you just said or to prevent you from making further calls to spread misinformation. Some of us believe that free speech is a human right defined by values that go beyond the limits of the First Amendment.
The alliance between political figures and these corporations is particularly terrifying. Big tech enabled the creation of state media without the state. Recently, Twitter admitted that it is censoring criticism of the Indian government about how it is dealing with the pandemic because such views are illegal in India. Facebook has been accused of censoring the views of Sikhs who raised genocide concerns. Governments can now outsource censorship obligations to big tech, which benefits from government support ranging from immunity to tax laws.
Trump has moved to create his own platform for communicating with voters. However, this is not about Trump. It’s about Facebook and its censorship program. Many of us are not impressed with Facebook’s efforts to work out its censorship standards as they are based on the premise of censorship. The internet was once the greatest free speech creation in history. It is now being converted into a managed area for company-approved viewpoints. For freedom of speech advocates, it is like moving from an ocean of free speech to a pool of controlled content.
In the end, the Facebook board couldn’t go as far as the Irish jury to say the company should return its boots to Trump, but “might consider” returning his boots to him. In the world of corporate censors, this is considered a principle point of view.
An earlier version of this column was running on Fox.com.