Beyond Platforms: Private Censorship, Parler, and the Stack
By Jillian C. York, Corynne McSherry, and Danny O’Brien
Posted February 28, 2021
Whatever you think of Parler, these decisions should give you pause. Private companies have strong legal rights under U.S. law to refuse to host or support speech they don’t like. But that refusal carries different risks when a group of companies comes together to ensure that certain speech or speakers are effectively taken offline altogether.
At the top of the stack are services like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter, platforms whose decisions about who to serve (or what to allow) are comparatively visible, though still far too opaque to most users. Their responses can be comparatively targeted to specific users and content and, most importantly, do not cut off as many alternatives. For instance, a discussion forum lies close to the top of the stack: if you are booted from such a platform, there are other venues in which you can exercise your speech.
At the other end of the stack are internet service providers (ISPs), like Comcast or AT&T. Decisions made by companies at this layer of the stack to remove content or users raise greater concerns for free expression, especially when there are few if any competitors. For example, it would be very concerning if the only broadband provider in your area cut you off because they didn’t like what you said online—or what someone else whose name is on the account said. The adage “if you don’t like the rules, go elsewhere” doesn’t work when there is nowhere else to go. More…