What makes a government, a government?
Major tech companies announced this week they are removing content from the controversial commentator Alex Jones, known for promoting discredited conspiracy theories. That includes Facebook and Apple, which have business interests in Iowa.
Jones and his allies say the blacklisting is censorship. “Future of the First Amendment and internet freedom at stake,” read one recent headline on his InfoWars website.
At first blush, it’s a silly claim. Since tech companies are not governments, they cannot reasonably be charged with violating your First Amendment rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the state, not from corporations you voluntarily associate with.
But what if social media giants are, in fact, governments? If so, we have a problem.
Some believe the internet generally, and large social media platforms in particular, have grown into public utilities, which would mean we all have a right to fair access, even scoundrels like Jones.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has hinted at the idea. “In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” he reportedly told journalist David Kirkpatrick.
Even Iowa’s U.S. Rep. Steve King has compared social media to a utility, raising concern over their power to wipe out creators’ traffic sources.
“Is there any difference in your mind between say, Facebook, and Twitter and YouTube — those, we’ll call them utilities, not necessarily public utilities, but utilities — is there any difference between them and, let’s say, UPS and FedEx?” King asked the conservative internet celebrities known as Diamond and Silk during a Congressional hearing this year.
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Social media companies’ reach and influence are not the only ways they are government-esque. They also collect benefits paid for by taxpayers.
Here in Iowa, government leaders have aggressively courted big companies to build data centers, boasting a long list of benefits. We have cheap and clean energy sources, stable infrastructure, low construction costs, right-to-work policies and low earthquake risk, to name a few.
And as the Iowa Economic Development Authority notes on its website, “the state of Iowa may offer 50 or 100 percent refunds on sales and use tax for data center projects.” That’s a sweet deal for some of the nation’s most profitable corporations.
Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all taking advantage of our fertile ground. Apple infamously secured more than $200 million in tax incentives for its planned facility in Waukee. Tax credits and Iowa’s infrastructure spending are effectively subsidies to those companies.
Issues surrounding the intersection of the internet and free speech are not going away. Jones’ cyber banishment is part of a broader movement among internet gatekeepers, who are under increasing pressure to stamp out misleading and offensive content on their platforms.
All of this is not to say Jones or other disreputable characters deserve protection. Rather, this is a warning — if social media is a government, or even a utility, we are stuck with the likes of Jones.
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