Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is warning about the growing power of big tech companies, which give a few select people outsized control over the flow of information and ideas.
The justice’s warning comes as a part of a recent case which originated after former President Donald Trump blocked several people on Twitter. They filed a lawsuit, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president violated the First Amendment by blocking the individuals because the comments section on Twitter constitutes a “public forum.”
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the high court decided that the appeal was “moot” (no longer open to discussion) because of the change in the presidential administration.
Justice Thomas, however, took the opportunity in the case to write a separate, concurring opinion.
“Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties,” Justice Thomas pointed out.
“We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms,” he added.
An added concern for millions of Americans is what can happen if these select few companies decide to conspire, or at least appear to do so, to suppress speech.
The best example of this so far was when Amazon, Apple, and Google all chose to censor the free speech platform Parler within just a few days of each other. Apple removed it from the App Store, Google removed it from Google Play, and then Amazon Web Services dealt it a nearly fatal blow by refusing to host the application on its web hosting services, thereby removing Parler from the internet entirely.
“If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude,” Justice Thomas wrote.
The justice went on to suggest that digital platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, could be likened to “common carriers” which historically have been subject “to special regulations, including a general requirement to serve all comers.”
“There is a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner,” he added.
Additionally, Justice Thomas suggested, the argument that some tech companies could be akin to “common carriers” become even more clear when they control a “dominant” part of the market share.
The justice went on to state: “Much like with a communications utility, this concentration gives some digital platforms enormous control over speech. [Google] can suppress content by deindexing or downlisting a search result or by steering users away from certain content by manually altering autocomplete results. Facebook and Twitter can greatly narrow a person’s information flow through similar means. And, as the distributor of the clear majority of e-books and about half of all physical books, Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing.”
This was the case most prominently when Amazon removed conservative philosopher Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally from its cybershelves, because the author argued for a compassionate approach for those struggling with gender dysphoria, but against so-called sex-reassignment surgery.
Justice Thomas concluded his concurrence with the following statement:
The Second Circuit feared that then-President Trump cut off speech by using the features that Twitter made available to him. But if the aim is to ensure that speech is not smothered, then the more glaring concern must perforce be the dominant digital platforms themselves. As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms. The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions.
The reality of big tech censorship has become increasingly concerning for Christians trying to engage others and proclaim the truth to a culture sorely in need of it. When The Daily Citizen attempted to explain the biological reality of male and female in an article this year, Twitter decided to censor our post and lock our account. To date, we are still locked out of Twitter.
Christians would do well to consider that biblical values and traditional moral ethics are now outside of the mainstream in the United States. Indeed, our values are now so far outside the mainstream that large companies censor them, and face little to no consequences in doing so.
But Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this. Jesus reminds us in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (ESV).
The case is Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute
You can follow this author on Parler @ZacharyMettler
Photo from Sipa USA/REUTERS