Who Should Control the Monkey?
Why ideas should be freely exchanged, and not censored by big tech corporations.
You’ve likely seen a little figurine of a triad of monkeys, one with its hands over its eyes, another with its hands over its ears, and the third with its hands over its mouth. But what if, instead of these monkeys covering their own eyes, ears, and mouth, someone else did? What if that “someone else” was Big Technology? And what if the monkeys were you?
Questions about the role corporations like Twitter and Facebook play in the distribution and censorship of information resurfaced last week with their decisions to reduce or disallow entirely the postings of a New York Post article on Hunter Biden. But should these social media corporations be limiting what their users can post and see?
To determine whether the First Amendment or the privately-owned status of these corporations holds precedence here, we must first discuss the distinction between a publisher and a public forum. A publisher determines what content it will and will not publish and can also be held liable for publishing stories that contain non-protected speech, like libel. A public forum, on the other hand, is a space in which all ideas can be voiced and which cannot be held liable if non-protected speech should be voiced within its borders.
The Collegian, for example, is a publisher. A quad at a public university, on the other hand, is a public forum.
Public forums can exist virtually as well as physically. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—all of these are considered to be public forums, as anyone can log onto them and post immediately. If these corporations were to be considered publishers, they would need to ensure that content be submitted to them prior to posting and would then need to determine whether or not to publish it.
Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act of 1996 states:
It is the policy of the Unites States...to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals, families, and schools who use the Internet and other interactive computer services. (The Communications Decency Act of 1996)
Preventing an individual from publishing or reading information, then, is discouraged under American policy.
But, more than that, it is contrary to the First Amendment.
For Big Tech, which controls the digital manners in which Americans are able to convey information, to determine what can and cannot be said strikes at the very core of freedom of speech. To prevent an individual from posting or reading information on their social media platform is the same as clapping one’s hand over the monkey’s eyes, ears, and mouth and releasing one’s hand to allow in or out only what one wills.
But what about a commitment to truth and facts? This, I contend, belongs in the realm of the publisher, not the public forum. And, seeing as there is a general inability in our society today to agree upon basic facts on just about any matter, for tech companies to remove or prevent the posting of information for being misleading can hardly be construed as fact-checking. It might be fact-checking in the manner in which one group understand the facts, but not necessarily fact-checking in terms of objectivity.
Ultimately, I think that these corporations should allow for the free exchange of ideas, censoring only that which is inappropriate or excessively violent (censoring for which the Communications Decency Act allows). Censoring on the basis of ideas can never be objective, even if it is performed by a non-entity, like an algorithm. Every algorithm is coded by a person, and there is no such thing as an unbiased human. Every time information is censored, what is actually occurring is the deciding by an individual that the ideas conveyed through that information are, on his terms or the terms of his corporation as agreed upon by other men, unsuitable. He—or they—doesn’t think it fits with the world as he sees it. Thus, it has to go.
The American people are smart enough to make that decision on their own. Let them have access to the information and make of it what they will. Ultimately, somebody somewhere has to “make something” of each bit of information, deciding whether or not to grant it credence. Either that can be done by Big Tech or it can be done by the American individual. One way increases control, the other increases freedom.
Freedoms are best eroded when people aren’t paying attention. A little child swipes a cookie off the tray when her parents aren’t looking. So, too, do institutions with the ability to control swipe freedoms away when people have their backs turned. To shrug this phenomena off today as untrue or unimportant is to virtually guarantee a future in which each of us will be shaking our heads and saying, “I wish I had done something earlier, when I still could.”
So, will we be like the monkeys, with Big Tech covering our eyes, ears, and mouth, determining what we may and may not see, hear, and say, or will we practice freedom, seeing and hearing with discerning eyes and ears and speaking with a well-informed mouth? This battle is one likely to be fought in the halls of our government. Let us pay close attention, while we can, before the blindfold comes.
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Ryan Ford '23,