Big tech companies enjoy legal immunity premised on the assumption they’ll respect free speech.
By Dennis Prager
Courtesy of Wall Street Journal
There is an understandable reluctance among conservatives to allow the government to pass any laws governing big technology companies as a result of their hostility to conservative voices. These conservatives, citing the fundamental American belief in limited government, argue that whatever the big tech companies do, they are not the government. Constitutional guarantees of free speech do not apply to private companies.
This is correct.
But the issue is much more complex. I was asked to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on this matter for two reasons. One is the size of my website, Prager University, which gets a billion views a year, the majority of which come from viewers under 35. The more important reason is that YouTube, which is owned by Google, has at various times placed about 100 of our videos on its restricted list. That means any home, institution or individual using a filter to block pornography and violence cannot see those videos. Nor can any school or library.
PragerU releases a five-minute video every week. As of this writing, 56 of its 320 videos are on YouTube’s restricted list. They include videos such as “Israel’s Legal Founding” (by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz); “Why America Invaded Iraq” (by Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts); “Why Don’t Feminists Fight for Muslim Women?” (by the Somali-American women’s-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali); “Are the Police Racist?” (by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald); and “Why Is Modern Art So Bad?” (by artist Robert Florczak).
We have asked Google why our videos—which contain neither violence nor pornography nor any kind of hatred—are restricted. We know that human beings, not “algorithms,” have reviewed these videos. Yet we have never received an explanation.
The only restricted video for which Google has offered an explanation is “The Ten Commandments: What You Should Know,” a video I made. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked the Google representative at the hearing what could land a video about the Ten Commandments on the restricted list. The representative responded that the video referred to “murder.” As he did not appear to be joking, I assured the Senate committee that we would release a Google-friendly video, “The Nine Commandments.”
In defense of Google’s explanation, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii added that the Ten Commandments video “has Nazi imagery.” I explained that the swastika was shown—along with a hammer and sickle—as an example of a modern society in which murder was acceptable. Don’t we want young people to associate the swastika with evil? I asked. She did not respond.
The restrictions continue. This Monday, within hours of PragerU’s release of our newest video—“The Charlottesville Lie,” a talk by CNN’s Steve Cortes—Google placed it on YouTube’s restricted list. This happened two weeks after a Senate hearing at which a Google representative swore under oath that the company doesn’t censor based on political views.
Conservatives who defend Google or merely oppose any government interference argue that Google is a private company, and private companies are free to publish or not publish whatever they want. But Google, YouTube and Facebook choose not to be regarded as “publishers” because publishers are liable for what they publish and can be sued for libel.
Congress gave Google and other social media an exemption from such lawsuits in 1996, with the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that bill provided these companies with immunity against defamation and some other legal claims. The clear intent of Section 230—the bargain Congress made with the tech companies—was to promote free speech while allowing companies to moderate indecent content without being classified as publishers.
But Google and the others have violated this agreement. They want to operate under a double standard: censoring material that has no indecent content—that is, acting like publishers—while retaining the immunity of nonpublishers. When YouTube puts PragerU’s content on the restricted list, when Twitter bans conservative actor James Woods, they are no longer open forums.
Richard Hanania, research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, undertook a study of Twitter political bias and concluded: “My results make it difficult to take claims of political neutrality seriously. Of 22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump.”
Defenders of Google also argue that some left-wing sites have an even greater percentage of their videos on the restricted list. But this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. When left-wing sites are restricted it is because their videos contain expletives or material truly inappropriate for children, not because they are left-wing. PragerU videos do not contain expletives and are very suitable for children. Our videos are restricted only because they are conservative. How else to explain why Google has restricted more than half of our 15 videos that are pro-Israel—even one by former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
The unwillingness of some conservatives to confront some of the most dangerous attacks on free speech in American history is disturbing. Do they think Google, Facebook and Twitter—the conduits of a vast proportion of the free world’s public information—don’t act on their loathing of conservatives?
If the four major U.S. airlines announced they would not allow passengers carrying The Wall Street Journal to travel to some American cities, would any conservatives or libertarians defend the airlines’ right, as private companies, to do so?
Mr. Prager is president of PragerU, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist, and author of the second volume of “The Rational Bible,” his five-volume commentary on the Torah.