Alex Jones & Free Expression
Alex Jones, the creator of Infowars and numerous conspiracy theories, was recently banned from Apple, Facebook, Youtube and Spotify. As of this writing, he has not been banned from Twitter. While Jones sees the bans as a conspiracy against him, the companies assert that he violated their terms of service—specifically their policies on hate speech, harassment and bullying. The companies also assert that the ban had nothing to do with the misinformation that makes up a significant portion of Jones’ content. While I do think the world would be a better place without Alex Jones’ content, he is entitled to the same freedom of expression as anyone else. As such, his being banned does raise some concerns.
From a legal standpoint, the companies are acting within the law: as private businesses they have the right to enforce their terms of service. As I have pointed out in other essays, the First Amendment applies to the United States; it does not apply to companies in their role as employers nor in their role as service providers. So, just as the NFL has the legal right to forbid its players from protesting during games, these companies have the legal right to ban Alex Jones. But, what interests me is the ethics of this matter rather than the open and shut legality.
When discussing liberties, it is important to distinguish between positive liberties and negative liberties. A positive liberty/right involves both having a specific freedom as well as an entitlement to the means of exercising that freedom. For example, for children in the United States K-12 education is a positive right: it would not only be wrong to deny them education, they are also provided with the means of achieving their education. In contrast, a negative liberty/right just grants one protection in exercising that freedom—one is not entitled to the means to exercise it. For example, American citizens have the freedom to travel within the United States, but they are not entitled to free plane or even bus tickets from the government.
The right of free expression is obviously a negative right: people are protected from being silenced by others but are not entitled to the means of expressing themselves. For example, if Sally the Socialist wants to print flyers condemning capitalism and urging the workers to demand better wages, then she has the freedom to do so. However, she has no right to expect that I or anyone else will print and distribute the flyers for free. Even if I once agreed to print flyers for her, she has no right to expect this to continue in the future. Also, even if she makes a contract with me to print her flyers, I can refuse to print them if she breaks the contract. However, if I went around tearing down her properly posted flyers from public billboards, I would be violating her right of free expression. After all, she has the right to be free of my interference.
Turning back to Jones, while he does have the right to express himself, he is not entitled to the means to do so. While he did have user agreements with the companies, he broke these agreements with his content. As such, Apple and the other companies are within their moral rights to ban him. This does not violate his freedom of expression since they are not interfering with his freedom of expression, they are merely denying him specific means to express himself. After all, just as Sally the Socialist is not entitled to use your printer and paper without your permission, Jones is not entitled to use Youtube’s hardware and software without their permission. In this case, property rights trump the freedom of expression—just as it would be wrong to force me to provide Sally with flyers, it would be wrong to force these companies to distribute Jones’ content.
Those who believe that companies have the moral right to restrict employee expression must agree that companies can also ban content, even if they agree with what Jones claims. After all, both cases involve the property rights of companies overriding the freedom of expression of those subject to the rules of the companies (be they employees or users/customers). While I do find the above reasoning appealing, I do find restricting freedom of expression problematic whether it is by public or private agents.
As noted above, the First Amendment protects freedom of expression from the state, but not from companies. While this is a legal matter, moral arguments can be made for allowing private agents, like companies, to restrict freedom of expression while also contending that the state should be forbidden from doing this.
One easy and obvious way to argue for this is to begin by pointing out that the state has a monopoly on control. So, if the state decided to silence Jones, he would be effectively silenced everywhere. Private agents, such as companies, are very limited in their power. While Apple and the others can ban Jones from their services, they cannot prevent him from starting his own streaming video service. Likewise, while the NFL can ban players from protesting at games, they cannot prevent them from quitting and finding jobs that will allow them to protest at work. Because employees, customers and users can leave, companies cannot restrict their freedom of expression without their consent. In contrast, the state has far more power and citizens wishing to escape a repressive state would need to leave the state entirely—something far more difficult than getting another job or finding a new service provider. As such, it makes sense that while the state is forbidden from violating the freedom of expression, companies are free to do so—albeit within certain limits.
One concern that does arise is that companies can have an effective monopoly on expression. While Jones can start his own Jonestube to stream his content, being banned from the major providers does restrict his ability to reach an audience. This is even more concerning in the case of people who lack the resources to create their own means of distribution in competition with the big providers. As with the state, this raises concerns about a terrible imbalance of power and the effective ability to broadly silence people. While I think the world would be a better place without Jones’ content, my concern with free expression is not about whether I like or dislike the content. Rather, it is about basic principles of freedom. While Apple and the others are not as powerful as the United States, they control the means of expression to such a degree that they can effectively silence people—thus presenting a threat on par with the state. As such, if we think that the freedom of expression is worth protecting in a meaningful way, we must be concerned about the power of companies to silence expression. Even in cases when the silence would be an improvement.