NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - After vacillating for years, Facebook, Apple, Alphabet and other Silicon Valley stalwarts finally took the hateful rantings of Alex Jones and Infowars off their platforms. As private companies with standards - they call them “community”, not editorial - to uphold, that’s their right. But their actions, seemingly in concert, raise fresh regulatory and business risks.
Jones is up in arms, calling the social-media blackout an abrogation of his First Amendment freedoms. He’s appealing to President Donald Trump, who once called his reputation “amazing.” But it won’t be Big Tech that stifles Jones and his loony band of conspiracy theorists. Until he and his organization are bankrupted for libel, he will have many other ways to spread his noxious bile.
That’s not to downgrade the significance of Facebook, Apple and Alphabet’s YouTube removing most traces of Jones and Infowars from their products. The decision accelerates the evolution of these firms, with a collective market value of $2.4 trillion, into media companies with accountabilities far beyond those they’ve been willing to countenance.
That’s a risk for their businesses that investors must consider. By hemming and hawing for so long over the matter, Facebook has particularly opened its management to further criticism that it’s not up to the task of stewarding Mark Zuckerberg’s creation in a manner consistent with the values it purports to embrace. And by acting virtually in unison, the companies have given fuel to critics who say their dominance demands action by antitrust regulators.
The tech companies also may give Jones ammunition to make himself a free-speech martyr. It’s not hard to imagine Jones arguing he’s a 21st-century version of Larry Flynt – an abhorrent man publishing nasty things, but with every right to do so. But the analogy is wrong. Jones is still free to beam his vicious rodomontade on the internet for all to see.
More to the point, Flynt prevailed against a libel lawsuit brought by Jerry Falwell over a parody Hustler published because the televangelist was deemed a public figure, making defamation harder to prove. Jones often chooses private citizens as his targets. These are people like the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, whom he has called “crisis actors.” Their lawsuits seeking damages for libel, not the bumbling and belated calls from Silicon Valley, will ultimately determine the contours of what is, and what is not, acceptable speech in the Trump era.
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