In a decade that is no stranger to political 180s, the stance America's left and right have taken on the subject of internet censorship fits right in. The Republicans, the party that supported a ban on flag burning and derided professional athletes for kneeling during the national anthem, has taken the stance the public is best served with an unfettered flow of ideas and having certain ideas throttled on the internet gives too much control to a handful of tech companies.
The Democrats, the party that generally opposed bans on free expression such as flag burning and kneeling during the national anthem, argues that the internet has become a hotbed of extremism and needs tighter controls to prevent instances of violence like we saw at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
To help provide some historical context behind this debate, I invited Ben Studebaker, YDHTY's favorite political theorist, to discuss. His recent article, Liberalism's War on the Internet, describes how the current debate over free speech on the internet is part of a larger pattern where America's public and private sector worked in tandem to quell movements incompatible with democracy and how these efforts ran contrary to democracy itself.
One of the key elements to a democratic society is permitting the presence of decidedly undemocratic views. America, by and large, has the most comprehensive definitions of free expression in the world, with small legal carveouts for either inciting or promoting illegal activity.
When America's power structure has been challenged by ideas that run contrary to it, such as the rise of communist organizations in the earlier part of the 20th century, the government has responded in different ways.
During the Great Depression, when the economic situation for many Americans was bleak and communism presented an attractive alternative, the public and private sectors were willing to make concessions in the form of jobs and other social programs to ensure the population had their needs met. In the case of the Red Scare almost 20 years later, the government used hearings and other coercive measures to effectively make those who were part of a communist organization unemployable.
Studebaker sees the latter example as a parallel to the debate on free speech on the internet today.
Social networks have removed the barriers traditional media placed that kept fringe ideologies from gaining traction and led to the rise in populism in the form of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This, in turn, has threatened the current economic order and caused alarm in America's political and economic elites.
Studebaker sees the threat of regulation as a cudgel the government uses to get private companies to silence undesirable thought on their behalf. While Congress is prohibited from passing a law that would prevent someone from promoting a particular ideology, it doesn't need to if private companies see doing so as a way to protect their interests.
The problem is compounded by the fact a handful of companies control the flow of the majorty of information, leaving the regulation of speech to a handful of tech oligarchs. While many view these companies as benign tyrants, the power imbalances it creates could very easily swing the wrong way.
As with the last episode with Matthew Feeney, Studebaker recommends we look closer at the conditions that have drawn people to populism and extremism in the first place. People who feel safe and secure are less likely to want to disrupt the institutions that govern society and the ideas that might threaten democratic and economic institutions will remain on the fringes.