Does YouTube Have The Right To Ban Alex Jones?

Alex Jones’ Infowars got banned from Youtube, Apple and Facebook all in one day. His followers are outraged and scream censorship. His many enemies are celebrating the move as a victory for truth. What is going on? Is this just a perfectly legitimate example of free association by private companies, or are we dealing with something else?

Libertarians don’t tend to think of censorship by private institutions as a violation of freedom of speech. A private person, or company, should be free to ban or endorse any kind of opinion he or she likes. This is technically absolutely correct, and an important point to make. It is, however, questionable whether this argument holds when we are talking about big companies like Google or Facebook.

Could there be a legitimate reason to ban Alex Jones? I have known Infowars since the early 2000s. Back then, Jones was the only political commentator I knew off who was already publishing his opinions as videos online. This was years before youtube became popular, when the internet was still very slow and expensive. Jones deserves some credit for very early recognizing the full potential of the internet.

He seemed to have a more or less classical liberal mindset. His videos were hugely critical of the state. The 1993 massacre in Waco Texas was portrait by him as a clear sign that the government had declared war on its citizens. Inforwars, and its sister side Prison Planet, argued that we are going rapidly into a massive police state. Knowing the history of western states since, it is difficult to argue that he was completely wrong about that. Already back then, he clearly seem to have a very conspiratorial view of the world. The new world order, as he called it, was a conspiracy of a small elite of people to enslave the rest of us.

Although I was a lot more susceptible to this simplistic conspiratorial viewpoint back in the day, I always thought that Jones was slightly nuts. But at first I thought he was nuts in a good way. At least he saw the state as a big problem. This was something I did not hear from many people in Germany at the time. So, even if slightly wrong, he felt like a little bit of fresh air.

I particularly liked that Infowars was still asking critical questions about 911. Being the conspiracy theorist that he has always been, he openly advocated that it was the US government itself that was behind the attacks. Again, I was never fully convinced by that, and these theories have now long been debunked as complete nonsense, but at least the conspiracy theorists were still asking critical questions.

That was better than what I heart from most commentators, who had collectively lost their marvels, rallying blindly behind the US flag. Conspiracy or not, the inside job theorists were among the few people, who saw correctly that the government was abusing these terrorist attacks to massively infringe on our liberty. They also saw clearly that going to war against terrorism was a terrible idea.

Since that time, Infowars has of course become hugely successful. Alex now reaches millions of people regularly. He therefore has the power to influence the opinions of a significantly big crowd. But he clearly has not grown very much when it comes to his theories of how the world works. His view on politics is now more conspiratorial than ever, and the theories seem to have got more crazy rather than less.

In my view, he has gone from someone who I thought was valuable, because he was roughly advocating the right things for the wrong reasons, to somehow who is a real liability to people critical of statism. His crazy theories make critics of the status quo look bad. Especially since the rise of Donald Trump in politics, Infowars has become absolutely excruciating. Nowadays, I can never manage to view more than a minute or so of his crazy rants. And ranting is basically all he does. He seems to be one of those people who think that voicing an argument loudly somehow makes it better. He has also become an outright cheerleader of the a state run by Donald Trump.

Why am I saying all this? I am saying it to make the point that I have very little motivation to defend Infowars. I am not a fan. I even think Alex Jones has become a real liability. I also find it hard to defend him with the notion that he is attacked, because the elite fears the truth. The risk that his crazy conspiracy theories about how the world works will become mainstream when people are exposed to them is rather slim.

But I am indeed concerned about his ban from social media. After all, he does reach enough people to at least disrupt the official narrative. I am concerned that Infowars might just be the first to go. Well, it is probably too late for that. But at least one of the first big ones to go. Much more reasonable commentators might be next. In fact, a lot of libertarians are already under attack. Defending these social media giants with the argument that they are private companies is quite wrong, or at the very least naive. There are two flaws in that argument.

Firstly, just because something is private does not mean that liberty minded people cannot have an opinion about it. This is the opposite of true. Capitalism works only as far as consumers make informed choices. It is not just acceptable to criticize private companies, it is important.

The reason why amazon works is, because they have a comprehensive review system build into the platform. Everyone is free to review products and sellers. Without this private review system, amazon would probably not be very save to use. The whole reason why capitalism works is, because it allows for quick corrections of mistakes via market feedback. If a company engages is unwanted policies, everyone has a right, and even a duty, to criticize it.

The second mistake in the reasoning that we don’t need to be worried about private censorship is that it is highly questionable how private these companies really are. The whole argument assumes that Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook are completely free to choose their company’s policies. It assumes that everything we are witnessing is free from state interference.

But very few things are free from government interference these days. We do not have fully private property rights, in which owners can simply do as they please with their belongings. Most usage of property is highly regulated, making it a mix of private and public. And that is certainly true for companies like Facebook and Google.

We don’t know how much they are being bullied behind closed doors. But conspiracy theories are not necessary. What is out in the open is enough to see that there is a lot of pressure on them to comply with the interests of the government. The history of censorship on platforms like Facebook clearly shows that they only started editing political content once they got pressured by the state.

In Germany, Facebook was first attacked by the government when people started to criticize the wave of immigrants coming into the country. These attacks at question were undoubtedly degrading and aggressive. One would hope that a civilized society would naturally criticism, and even ostracize, extreme xenophobes like these people. The comments, however, were made on the private newsfeed of Facebook users.

Germany is not a free country. There are many restrictions on what can be expressed publicly, and even privately, to other people. Therefore, the government in Berlin wanted Facebook to stop users from making such comments. But when it first approached Facebook, and demanded for the company to became an enforcer of German censorship laws, Facebook reacted completely disinterested. As a result, nothing happened.

Being a US company, Zuckerberg was clearly confused by what the government expected him to do. Facebook at the time simply did not have any editorial unit, specialized in policing political opinions. Why would they spend money on something that would make their users less happy? The whole business model was to provide a social network for as many people as possible.

But Facebook was about to find out that you cannot just ignore a state. Politicians started to make sure that Facebook understood that it could not simply reject an offer from the mafia. They threatened Facebook with fines of millions of Euros for each and every single violation of a not deleted post in violation with German censorship laws. In other words the government threatened to destroy Facebook in Germany, if the company did not comply with whatever editorial wishes the state had. It was only after that threat that Facebook become an editor of political content.

This shows very clearly that these companies are not free to simply determine their own policies. It is very naive to believe that governments will just sit there and let a private organization challenge the foundations of their power. Ideas are very powerful. No one who wants to stay in power can afford to lose control over the narrative of public debate. Any state, no matter how liberal on the surface, has always had effective policies to influence, and outright control, the production and distribution of ideas.

Most states therefore still have outright speech prohibition. Most states also still have a media that is openly run by the government. No government currently allows a truly free education system. The difference between dictatorships and democracies is that the former are more overt in their attempt to control ideas. Democracies on the other hand have found ways to control opinions through the backdoor. Interventions are usually portrait as quality controls rather than outright censorship. Someone needs to make sure that schools and universities are “quality” institutions. Someone needs to make sure that citizens are not mislead by “fake news” from evil players.

Historically, laws have not been effective limits to the power of governments. If there ever was an idea that deserved the label naive than it is that governments can be controlled by laws, laws that have to be enforced by the state itself. What does put a lit on the power of governments is the popularity of certain policies. The physical force of compliance by the masses is very important to every state. In democracies, politicians are also at risk of not being re-elected. The reason why there is still free speech in the US is not because the government cannot break the constitution. If the first amendment to the US constitution was unpopular, it would be gone in a heart beat, or simply be ignored.

When faced with popular laws which cannot be ignored, governments often will prosecute opponents for the violation of other laws. The people in power tend to not care why an opponent is fined or goes to jail, as long as he is knocked out. Given the huge quantity of laws in existence, almost everyone is always in violation of some law. Does anyone believe that Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy because of rape allegations? Maybe, just maybe, his imprisonment has something to do with the fact that he was exposing the corruptions and criminality of western governments.

And does anyone believe that Zuckerberg really helped to rig the last US elections? The real reason why he was dragged before congress is, to intimidate him. The message was clear, we, meaning the US government, are not able to directly censor Facebook because of the first amendment. But make no mistake, if you don’t play ball with us, we will get you for something else.

It is very obvious, that the social media giants are not private in the sense that they can freely determine their policies. They are heavily bullied by governments to comply with the needs of the powerful. Sure, one might criticize them for not putting up too much of a fight. But the real villain is the government. Infowars being banned by independent companies on the very same day is hardly a coincidence. It serves as another evidence that these companies are not independent, private players.

And if governments think, they cannot yet get away with outright banning an unwanted commentator, they will secretly ban the opinions by making sure that posts do not appear in the newsfeed of followers. They also often sabotage the funding of unwanted organizations. Libertarians like the Ron Paul Institute, Anti-war.com or Scott Horton are already targeted like that. All have seen the views of their posts on social media deteriorate recently without formerly loosing any followers.

So no, what we are dealing with is not simply private companies using their right to free association. What we are dealing with is a classic attempt by governments to win control over the distribution of ideas.

The solution to all of this can therefore not be to demand more government interference. This would assumes that the problem is the social media companies themselves. But all the evidence points to the fact that it is the government bullying of these companies that is the real problem. And this is not going to change, no matter who the most popular social media platform is going to be.

Any company, with a headquarters and centralized servers, will get under enormous government pressure if it actually becomes big enough to make a difference. The only solution seems to be to create more decentralized platforms for the distribution of ideas. In that case, the state would need to go after everyone individually, which is much more difficult to do. Decentralization is therefore the only way to escape the bullying. But it is easier said than done. States are a hard problem.

Free Speech In The Age Of The Internet

Not too long ago, the internet used to be a very free space. It seemed out of reach from governments, and was almost entirely unregulated. Users felt free to publish almost anything they liked, and they could do so anonymously. The internet, therefore, was a hope for everyone with non-mainstream opinions that their voices could finally break through the protected consensus of the mainstream.

This hope was certainly justified. The internet still is very much a force for good. But like all forces for good, the government tends to hate them. And so Leviathan has been eager to jump on it. The state is trying to make the internet a force for its own good. The progress made in that endeavor during the last decade is very worrying.

Edward Snowden, who worked for the NSA, was the first to blow the whistle. His revelations revealed that western governments had very advanced programs to use the internet to control society. Before Snowden, few people had thought about the consequences that most of what we do these days leaves some traces on the internet. I certainly was not worried about it. But Snowden made the public aware that, by hovering up all these information, the government could potentially know about almost everything we are up to in our lives.

This is not just a problem for really bad guys, like terrorists. The secrecy of private lives has been an effective tool against a lot of government tyranny. Whenever the official rules of the state became too silly, a lot of people just secretly stopped following them. The state essentially needed to be good enough, so that most people followed the rules out of conviction. The prospect of the state being able to take away this kind of effective protest is truly frightening. For the first time, Snowden revealed that the internet did not necessarily have to be a force for good. If we are not careful, it could turn out as a tool for real enslavement.

Nevertheless, the fact that everyone can now publish their opinions cheaply, and on multiple platforms, remains extremely powerful. After all, in many western countries there are still laws in place which, at least formally, guarantee a certain amount of free speech. These laws date back to times, when it was significantly more complicated and costly to make one’s voice heard. The establishment therefore usually did not see free speech as too much of a threat.

In fact allowing people to express their opinions, while at the same time not giving them a platform, can be an effective tool for controlling opposition. The moment the government locks up dissidents, they can claim to be a victim of an oppressive regime. This tends to draw support to them. At the same time, leaving someone alone without platforming him, but giving him hope that his voice might be heard in the future, gives that person an incentive to not go too far with his opposition. As long as he believes he can make his voice heard in the future, he might still play along with the system, even though the system is very much rigged against him.

But with the internet, people now have a very real chance of finding an audience. The internet has indeed shown to be the game changer that it was promised to be at the beginning. Since the people in power often believe their own propaganda, they have been very late to realize, how much they have been loosing control over the narrative of debates.

The big wakeup call came with Brexit and the election of Trump. Both events were completely unexpected to the established forces. They were so hit by surprise that it took them a while to realize why voters had turned against them. A lot of people simply do not get their information from officially briefed sources anymore.

Since the establishment had this epiphany, we have seen frantic attempts to win back control. There has been an increase in legal speech prohibitions in almost every western country, with the possible exception of the US. Only last week we saw Scottish YouTuber Markus Meechan, who goes under the name Count Dankula, being convicted in a court of law for hate speech. His crime was to make a joke for his girlfriend, by teaching her pug to perform a Nazi salute to the words “gas the jews”. Meechan is not actually a Nazi. Far from it, he explains at the beginning of the video that he thinks Nazis are the most offensive thing he could imagine. The goal was not to spread hatred, but to teach his girlfriend wrong, who claimed that her pug could not possible do anything that is not cute.

None of that of cause matters. Free speech is meaningless if it is not allowed to offend people. Unless someone is issuing a concrete and believable thread, or is involved in planning a violent crime, everyone should be free to say whatever he or she likes. A Precedence like the Meehan case clearly shows that the government is trying to clamp down on free speech.

Last year, we saw the UK government even proposing punishments of up to 15 years in prison for people who merely watch “extremist” content online. This is allegedly targeted at supporters of terrorist groups. However, all it takes is a precedent from a judge to extend this law to cover all kinds of opposition to the government. True opposition can easily be portrayed as extremist. But if merely watching content online becomes a crime, punishable by multiple years in prison, we are truly in deep tyranny territory.

The bigger strategy to get back in control of the narrative, however, does not seem to be outright speech prohibitions. Especially in the US, these would face some serious legal hurdles. Instead, the strategy seems to be to somehow go back to the good old days of being able to deny someone a platform.

After the Trump election, a narrative has been spun to make alternative news sources look like tools for evil forces. The phrase ‘fake news’ was introduced to differentiate between legitimate, meaning establishment, information, and uncontrolled news sources. Introducing the label ‘fake news’ would be little more than amusing if it had stopped there. But unfortunately, we are seeing an outright criminalization of everything that is not approved media content.

This would usually look like a cause doomed to fail, giving how easy it is to publish anything on the internet. But unfortunately, the way the online distribution of information appears to work at the moment does give the government a chance of succeeding. While it is true that everyone can publish anything easily on the internet, that is not to say that it is easy to find an audience.

Social media has a huge effect on which content people consume. What does and does not appear in the news feed of Facebook and Twitter, or in the search results of Google and YouTube, very much influences opinions. And these few companies very much control a huge amount of the distribution, and advertisement of alternative media.

From a libertarian perspective this could sound like good news. If distribution is in the hands of private companies, then there is little to worry about, right? Private companies, for the most part, do not have political agendas. They just want to make a profit. That means, they have an economic incentive to make as many customers happy as possible.

Unfortunately, this is only true in a free market system. What we have today, however, is crony capitalism. In today’s system, whenever a company reaches a certain size, or whenever a company crosses political interests, a collusion between the government and that company can be observed. After all, the government can make business very difficult for pretty much anyone. It is therefore difficult to say no to the mob.

How do we know that this is happening? Well, first of all, it is naïve to believe that the state would simply stand bank when one of its core interests is threatened. Many people have long suspected that the reason google is the best search engine is because they get help from the intelligence community in the US.

But we don’t even need to go into conspiracy theories. The collusion is happening very overtly. Governments simply have declared the media platforms to be responsible for the content that its users post. As a result, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, who have a quasi monopoly, have started to censorship user content. And they are not just censoring posts that are against some laws. They are keenly censoring anything that even remotely might get them any negative criticism from the establishment, just in case.

There clearly is no will to resist government influence. These companies are more than happy to go along with an established agenda. On the other hand, the pressure they are put under by the government is certainly huge. Campaigns to demonize content are being lounged very aggressively. Anyone who is on the wrong side of the news, is attacked as being an illegitimate actor.

The most prominent villain has been made out to be Russia, who is accused of “interfering” in elections by simply talking to people on social media. I wrote about this here. But there are other scapegoats. The latest scandal is the use of Facebook data by the company Cambridge Analytics. As already in the Russian scandal, there is a lot of noise, but it is actually not so easy to find out what the exact accusations are. I might be wrong, but as far as I can tell, Cambridge Analytics is not actually accused of breaking the law. Instead, the company is accused of unethically collecting user information on Facebook, by burying the agreement to share these information in the terms and conditions of its apps. And we all know that no one reads those. It then used these information to provide a superior advertisement service.

If this is true, than it is not clear what the huge scandal is about. Sure, Cambridge Analytics might have got some information about users that the users were not really happy to share. While that would not be very good, the harm done in this case does not seem to be huge. After all the company did not use these information to steal or harm users in any other way. It simply used it for tailor made advertisement.

The fact that Facebook excessively collects its user’s data, and uses it to influence people on the network, has been well know for a long time now. Many users feel uncomfortable about it. I know a number of people who have left the platform for that reason. I myself have a ‘strictly no private stuff’ policy when it comes to using Facebook. As a consequence, user numbers are declining, and the average time spend on Facebook is down 24%. That is huge. If the Cambridge Analytics scandal will turn the psychology of users against using Facebook even more, than that is certainly a net positive as far as I am concerned.

Still, one has to ask why this particular case sparks so much outrage. One cannot help but get the impression that the real “crime” of Cambridge Analytics was to work for the wrong team in the last US election. What if they had worked for the Clinton campaign, or to promote an officially accepted cause, like climate change? I am willing to bet anything that in that case, we would have never heard much about it. And if we did, the media would have presented Cambridge Analytics in a very different, much more positive, light.

In fact, we don’t really have to wonder about this. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Obama employed very similar advertisement tactics in the 2012 election. This was not a big scandal at all. No one seemed to have be bothered by it. And the difference between the two cases is clear – advertising the election of Obama is officially approved, while advertising Trump is not.

All of this makes it increasingly obvious that the domination of distributing content online by a very few big players is a real problem. It gives governments a handle on attempting to control the narrative. Making distributers of information responsible for the media content on their networks is a quite clever stroke of genius. That way, we will likely overshoot on the censorship side, without the government having to formally make it look like they are clamping down on freedom of speech. But this strategy would not be so easily possible if it wasn’t for the fact that we have quasi social media monopolies.

What can be done about it? I have heard a lot of people suggesting that we need to get the government involved in controlling these monopolistic platforms. This would apparently guarantee more fairness. At the very least there should be strict regulations.

Unsurprisingly, this seems like a really bad idea to me. I really do believe that the government is the real villain in all of this. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were not too bother censoring information before the state threatened them, and made a lot of noise about it. Putting the state officially in charge of these platform would only make things a lot worse.

It seems that the only possible answer to this problem is more consumer responsibility. Users need to demand less interference, and move to alternative platforms if possible. This is certainly easier said than done. The reason why there are so few players in this field is, because one of the major benefits of big platforms is a network effect. As consumers, we want to have as easy as possible access to all information. More importantly, content providers want to use platforms on which they can reach a maximum amount of people. If, however, all information are in the same place, we are necessarily talking about a quasi monopoly.

So the only solution seems to be to make a compromise to reduce one’s benefits of a network effect in exchange for having fewer interferences. But this could turn out to be a too big compromise for many people to make. Still, with the degree of interference that we are seeing at the moment, it seems likely that a large enough number of people will eventually make that compromise and move to alternative platforms.

In fact, this is what we are seeing already in the last few months. As mentioned, user time on Facebook is down 24%. Market monopolies don’t tend to last forever. Very few of the biggest major companies from a century ago are still around today. I shell be very surprised if Facebook will still be the dominant platform 20 years from now. At some point users will have enough of it. If nothing else, Facebook will at some point become old and not hip anymore. All the cool kids will be on the new popular platform X.

I witnessed the speed with which such change in psychology can happen myself when I was still living in Germany. Before there was Facebook, another social network called StudiVZ was very popular there. Within a very short time, it was so popular that one had to be on it in order to maintain a normal social life. Then, suddenly, people liked Facebook more and an exodus from StudiVZ began. Within a year, the network went from being so popular that no one could afford not to be on it, to being completely dead. That is how quickly it can go. Something similar happened of course to myspace.

Meaning, if there is any major shift in psychology against Facebook, the social network could very well go from having a quasi monopoly to being out of business very quickly. This seems inconceivable to most people now, and I am not predicting this to happen within the next year. But it seems almost certain to me that social media platforms will be subject to fashions. And that means that at some point in the future the network effect will work against Facebook.

In free markets, consumers have powers and responsibilities. Simply complaining about the policies of a company, without being willing to take action and move to the competition, is usually not very effective. On markets, everyone acts according to incentives. And the big companies have no incentive to resist the influence of governments. An institution that has a monopoly on physical force has the ability to make offers that no one can refuse. We therefore need to educating internet users about their responsibilities as consumers in order to change the psychology against companies that have become too powerful. I am not saying it is easy, but it is the only way, and it can clearly be done.

Freelancers deserve to choose their terms in the marketplace

I am told Libertarian Home spends too much time on economics and – guilty as charged – have blundered around on Twitter and Reddit for relevant material, as a service to you, dear reader. At the intersection of economics and social freedom I recently came across this story of a corporate fightback against social justice warriors and so was very interested in this similar fightback by backpage.com on behalf of its customers from the sex industry. I vaguely recalled Laura Lee, a sex worker I follow on twitter whom I interviewed here some time ago, had tweeted about backpage and went looking for those tweets – in order to agree with them and RT them you understand. Then I came across this from Dr Brooke Magnanti

https://twitter.com/belledejour_uk/status/618371927044976640

That sentence “Freelancers – whether sex or writing – deserve rights in the workplace” should perhaps have carried a trigger warning. As a freelance IT contractor I can think of nothing worse than being burdened by so called “rights” that are in fact obligations on my client. Things like holiday pay, redundancy and paternity pay would add to their costs and reduce my billable rate. If my billable rate is pushed down I go out of business, or rather I “go permie” and live a lifestyle very different from the one I chose. For me, not having “rights” is a question of essential liberty.

I wanted to point that out to Dr Magnanti and it did not go well.

https://twitter.com/belledejour_uk/status/618725142643011584

See that dot at the beginning of the tweet? That means 36,000 of Dr Magnanti’s followers will see her angry remarks at me. Ouch! That hurts – not least because basic decency requires I should not go around upsetting anyone, deliberately or accidentally. Yes it also hurts because I worry what her followers might think, it is only natural, but also because I respect Dr Magnanti and naturally wish to not to upset her in particular.

Searching out tweets to argue with? No, I was searching out tweets to agree with. Tweets by sex workers about an issue that affects sex workers, for an audience I know includes people who are, or have been, just one accident away from – quote – “whoring for survival”. A fate which – thanks to the economic problems that concern me – too many are too close to.

But at the end of the day, I too am who I am, and if I am guilty of being overly concerned about economic issues well then hang me. I am sorry I upset her, but it is important that popular well respected people like Dr Magnanti do not go around, uncorrected, arguing that “freelancers” need “rights” – enforced by law –  just as others should not go around saying that sex workers need to be rescued or protected – by the law – when they do not, and when that is in fact a very difficult issue for them. Neither is helpful for either case and helpful is what we should be for one another.

For the record, I do agree with Dr Magnanti that freedom from harassment by the police, clients and moralising dicks is important and something we all deserve.