Big Tech and the Deep History of Free Speech

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The speed at which many conservatives have unified in calling for a governmental response to Silicon Valley’s censorship may be surprising to some. After all, many of those calling for an intervention are the same ones who have spent their political lives preaching the gospel of laisse faire government. This seeming about-face is easily explained: the tech world’s frequent attempts to control the public dialogue have been so aggressive, so democratically unprecedented, so blatant, and so nakedly ideological, that conservatives recognize that the continued existence of open deliberation will likely depend on some regulation.

The purging of conservative Twitter accounts. Facebook’s algorithmic “tweaks,” designed to obscure and conceal news and ideas that challenge the narrative of the cultural left. Google’s routine manipulations of search results, aimed at ensuring that wrongthink and inconvenient events for progressives are shoved down the digital memory hole. When Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe recently released a shocking video that documents Google’s deliberate subversion of the electoral process in this country, Google went so far as to remove the video from YouTube. After all, Google owns YouTube.  Their platform, their choice, right?

As James D. Miller argues in a recent Quillette essay, there are compelling reasons to restrict Big Tech’s viewpoint discrimination on economic grounds. But there is also ample evidence that we are dealing with a situation that is historically singular and uniquely threatening to the idea of democracy. Throughout western history, political philosophers have consistently reaffirmed the essential roles of free speech and open deliberation in democratic governance. Because democracy empowers “the people” -- a class of non-experts -- there is a myriad of competing ideas for how to best pursue the public good.

This is why earlier thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Old Oligarch were skeptical of democracy: if you empower everyone (regardless of merit or education) to speak, you are bound to hear a lot of stupid and dangerous ideas.  A free space for discussion and deliberation of ideas becomes an absolute precondition for effective governance. Thus, healthy democracies deliberately create a public sphere that is contentious, an environment where even the best ideas are subjected to harsh scrutiny. It is precisely the ability of an idea to weather critique and attack that proves it is a good one. Big Tech’s attempt to silence a constellation of voices that could be said to represent roughly half of the nation’s political outlook is nothing short of an active attempt to eliminate this space of rhetorical contestation. If they succeed, America will have lost the very means by which we determine the course of the country.

The argument from Silicon Valley is that these voices can’t be heard because they marginalize historically oppressed groups, or that they create an “unsafe” climate for community-building. Of course, this is nonsense. Given that Big Tech, the culture industry, and academia form a trio that ensures the political left has carte blanche to reshape society as they see fit, it is the conservatives in digital space that represent the embattled minority. It is conservative ideas that are “unsafe” to speak. Ask Andy Ngo. One wonders: if so much effort must be mobilized to ensure that the pieties of secular progressivism are never challenged, could they even withstand the test?
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