The Senate hearing on internet censorship was largely a waste of time, but at least one company is daring to resist the authoritarian tide.
Of course it was never going to be otherwise. Give politicians a public forum and they’re always going to prioritise posturing and maximum personal exposure over substance. It’s what they do. Ahead of the Senate Commerce Committee hearings, which were supposed to focus on reform on Section 230, we explored some of the issues at hand, hoping they would be discussed.
In the event it seems they weren’t, at least not in any substantial or constructive way. While we haven’t watched the entire streamathon, the clips and reporting we have seen indicate the opportunity to hold the CEOs of Twitter, Google and Facebook accountable for how they selectively censor their platforms was wasted by Senators playing to their home crowds.
A perfect example of this is the clip that seems to have got the most traction, of Senator Cruz having a go at Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey over his company’s suppression of a NY Post story. Cruz spends his time hectoring and interrupting the clearly bored (and magnificently hirsute) Dorsey, who presumably expected nothing less. CEOs know they just have to briefly allow themselves to be punch bags in these feeble show trials in order to make the problem go away.
Meanwhile the focus of the censorship debate moved on to Spotify, thanks to its publication of a Joe Rogan podcast featuring Alex Jones, who internet companies have decided is too dangerous to be allowed on any of them. Jones didn’t say anything illegal or even especially contentious, but many, including some journalists and even self-styled free speech activists, still think the whole episode should have been censored by Spotify merely for featuring him.
Joe Rogan hosted far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his podcast today. They pushed anti-vaxx conspiracies and broadcasted banned Infowars videos. Rogan continuing to platform these far-right sickos is incredibly gross and dangerous. pic.twitter.com/ymNMm9GI5x
— Nathan Bernard (@nathanTbernard) October 27, 2020
In case you’re tempted to think this mob is acting in good faith, consider that the podcast also appears on YouTube, which has also banned Jones, and was approaching seven million views at time of writing. Where is the outrage about that and, for that matter, the clips of it that have been published on Twitter and Facebook? They presumably think they have a better chance of manipulating Spotify because it has a specific commercial arrangement with Rogan.
While Spotify was wrong to arbitrarily ban Jones in the first place, it is responding well to the latest calls for censorship. “We are not going to ban specific individuals from being guests on other people’s shows, as the episode/show complies with our content policies,” said one of a set of ‘talking points’ Spotify circulated internally in anticipation of the furore.
Having said that, the company left itself with little choice when it shelled out a reported $100 million to lure Rogan into an exclusive deal, which will kick in next year. Rogan has repeatedly insisted Spotify has no editorial input into his show and that he will continue to invite whoever he wants. It follows that Spotify must either back or sack Rogan and will continue to the former to protect its investment.
So while the Senate hearings don’t seem to have done anything to advance the Section 230 conversation, the continued availability of the Jones Rogan podcast indicates some kind of ceiling for big tech’s current censorship ambitions. Twitter and the others will all be crossing their fingers harder than ever for a Democrat victory in next week’s US general election as the Republicans will probably do a better job of tackling the matter if they’re given another four years in charge.