Facebook’s abrupt decision last week to change its policy of censoring any posts elevating the theory that COVID-19 might have been manmade came as no surprise to Mike Matthys, a tech venture capital executive who has worked in Silicon Valley for several decades.
The social media giant only made the about-face once President Biden acknowledged that some facets of the U.S. intelligence community believe that COVID escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. Biden then announced a 90-day investigation into the virus’s origins. Before that, many Democrats and most members of the media had dismissed the COVID-came-from-a-lab narrative as a crackpot conspiracy theory.
It’s just one in a series of tech and media censorship decisions Matthys cites as wrong-headed and harmful for a healthy exchange of ideas in a free society. Over the last year, he and two longtime friends of different political persuasions, Brian Jackson and John Quinn -- all of whom work in the tech industry -- have become so alarmed by the steady stream of blatant censorship that they formed a nonpartisan group dedicated to curbing it. They dubbed the group the 1st & 14th Institute after the Bill of Rights’ guarantees of free speech and due process.
Earlier this month, Matthys also was upset when Facebook barred a Wall Street Journal review of a book questioning climate change. The author of the book, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters,” is Steven Koonin, one of the country’s leading scientists who served a two-year stint in President Obama’s Energy Department as undersecretary for science.
Back in early April, Matthys also was disturbed by a YouTube decision to ban a roundtable discussion Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held with a group of doctors and scientists from Stanford and Harvard universities pushing back on the efficacy of mask-wearing and lockdowns. The video platform, owned by Google, said the discussion contained false statements about the safety rationale for children’s mask-wearing, but DeSantis countered that the science undergirding public policy reactions to the pandemic is still evolving. Google and YouTube were not acting as “repositories of truth and scientific inquiry” but instead as “enforcers of a narrative,” the Florida governor fumed.
One of the most disconcerting attempts at censorship – at least to Matthys and his colleagues — came back in February when two members of Congress tried to pressure broadcasting and cable companies to cancel Fox News, Newsmax and other conservative outlets because they had carried President Trump’s claims of election fraud before the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by extreme Trump supporters.
Rep. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, California Democrats and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent the letter to Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, Dish, Verizon and Cox, among other companies.
“It just seemed to us a little over the top,” Matthys told RealClearPolitics. “This was government outsourcing the very work of censorship to TV channels.”
It’s as if Trump’s election erased the last 60-plus years of modern history and the fight against censorship waged by the left, he said.
“We’re nonpartisan and we like to remind people that if you really dislike Trump or you dislike conservative views, just remember what happened in the 1950s and 1960s when we had the McCarthy era and the Berkeley free speech movement.”
Quinn, who has been active in various political groups including Democratic campaigns, has said he was motivated to push back when he started observing Facebook blocking friends for posting articles on how countries such as South Africa are using well-known medicines to help people with COVID and Lyme disease.
“It seems these platforms may be following their own science rather than allowing users to post scientific information from abroad,” he said.
The legal clash between tech giants and critics of their censorship, including prominent conservative politicians, has been brewing for months after several social media companies kicked Trump off their platforms over his role in inciting the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol.
While polls show most Americans, but not most Republicans, back Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, the censor-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to blocking information about the origin of the coronavirus is stoking new criticism about how powerful these tech companies have become, as well as how dangerous some of their politically driven decisions can be to the public discourse.
Last week, DeSantis, the leading 2024 GOP presidential contender (should Trump decline to run again), fought back, signing a bill that would require social media companies to post concrete criteria used to de-platform users. The new law also allows the Florida Elections Commission to fine social media companies up to $250,000 for banning political candidates.
The rebuke from Silicon Valley was swift. Two technology groups on Thursday filed legal challenges to the new Florida law, arguing that it “runs roughshod” over the First Amendment rights of private online businesses and amounts to a government intrusion into the free marketplace of ideas that would be “unthinkable for traditional media, lending libraries or newsstands.”
Other conservative lawmakers have threatened even more punitive measures if tech companies continue to block political or scientific content they disagree with. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and many other prominent Republicans want to throw out Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube special protections from liability for content shared on their platforms.
Matthys, Quinn and Jackson argue such aggressive government action could have the opposite of the desired effect – that the companies would censor far more content if legal protections for them are removed. Other tech entrepreneurs would likely opt out of the business entirely from fear of litigation.
Instead of trying to rip away Section 230 protections, the trio proposes an industry-wide self-regulatory process that falls mostly outside of government -- similar to how the film industry voluntarily created the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system in 1968 in response to parents’ calls for common-sense guidelines assessing movies for children’s viewing.
Matthys envisions a quasi-governmental body akin to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that operates as an extension of the Securities and Exchange Commission and regulates member brokerage firms and exchange markets. FINRA has an $800 million budget, is funded by industry participants, hands out fines and has the ability to disbar individuals from serving as investment advisers if they aren’t operating within prescribed standards.
“There are several thousand arbitration judges that serve on FINRA, and if there’s a dispute, they can create an arbitration mechanism and it can happen relatively quickly,” Matthys said. “Whatever they decide is final, although they can appeal. … It has to be something that people trust is nonpartisan.”
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, argues that all of these ideas should be up for discussion but only if the tech companies can opt into them voluntarily. Facebook and Instagram, for instance, are already outsourcing some of these decisions on whether to censor or block content to an oversight board. The oversight board is made up of law professors and leading civic and media experts, including the vice president of the libertarian CATO Institute, but none from traditional conservative circles.
Moreover, Goldman argues that, legally, these social media platforms and traditional publishers can operate very similarly in determining which content to post that is of particular interest to their readers.
Government-ordered restrictions on tech companies determining what can and cannot appear on their platforms, Goldman argues, is an unconstitutional intrusion on private companies’ rights to operate and promote or eliminate content as they see fit.
“Twitter gives free exposure to people who you would like to reach, but that’s not an entitlement,” he says.
True, Matthys acknowledges, but politically biased censorship only further fuels widespread mistrust in the media writ large – especially when they suddenly reverse course and lift bans on certain narratives that subsequent evidence shows weren’t crackpot ideas at all.
“The topic of the source of COVID is not something that could be construed as ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmful,’ so the only reason for [Facebook] to previously censor the topic is based on its politicized view of consensus,” he added.
In mid-March, the 1st & 14th Institute commissioned a poll of registered voters in Eshoo’s district. The survey asked if members of Congress should be sending letters to cable, satellite and Internet television companies pressuring them to drop certain news channels or demanding that they change their news coverage if they want to remain on the air. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said such a letter would be wrong to send, while 26% deemed the action right, and 15% weren’t sure or declined to comment.
The poll shows that the public harbors deep concerns about censorship – even when those polled dislike the political views being blocked. Most voters in Eshoo’s liberal Silicon Valley district strongly dislike Fox News and other conservative television outlets and Internet sites, but a big majority of them oppose censoring these same companies.
The 1st & 14th Institute, Matthys pledged, will continue to provide research that highlights the dangers of efforts to suppress the free exchange of ideas and information.
“Our motto is fairness and progress — something we can achieve really only with open discussion and debate and letting ideas percolate and evolve rather than just simply trying to censor the other side so ideas win by fiat,” he said.