Below is my column in USA Today on the recent call by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) for Amazon to steer readers to “true” books on climate change. It is the latest example of Democrat’s embracing a type of corporate governance model to carry out tasks barred to the government under the Constitution. Companies are now being asked to protect us from our own dangerous interests and inquiries. An array of enlightened algorithms will now watch over citizens to help them make good choices and read “true” things.
Here is the column:
Two centuries ago, rulers sought to convince subjects that they should embrace the notion of “enlightened despotism,” living without rights under the beneficent watch of overlords. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II summed up the idea with the maxim “everything for the people, nothing by the people.”
Today, we seem to be living in an age of enlightened corporate despotism, where social media and technology companies watch over what we read and what we discuss to protect us from ourselves.
That corporate governance model was on display this month when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on Amazon CEO Andy Jassy to use algorithms to steer readers away from books that spew “misinformation.”
Enlightened algorithms are already responsible for large-scale censorship across social media platforms that reach global audiences. They “stand the wall” as sentinels against dangerous ideas.
Warren argued that people were not listening to the enlightened views of herself and leading experts. Instead, they were reading views of vaccine skeptics by searching Amazon and finding books, including “falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures, including those written by the most prominent spreaders of misinformation.”
Warren blamed Amazon for failing to limit searches or choices: “This pattern and practice of misbehavior suggests that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products.”
In her letter, Warren gave the company 14 days to change its algorithms to throttle and obstruct efforts to read opposing views.
What was most striking about this incident is that Warren was eager for others to see her efforts to promote a form of censorship.
Once considered unAmerican and authoritarian, censorship has become a rallying cry from the left. Indeed, a new poll shows roughly half of the public supports not just corporate censorship but government censorship of anything deemed “misinformation.”
In one critical hearing, tech CEOs appeared before the Senate to discuss censorship programs. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story, but then pledged to censor more people in defense of “electoral integrity.”
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, however, was not happy. He was upset not by the promised censorship but that it was not broad enough.
He noted that it was hard to define the problem of “misleading information,” but the companies had to impose a sweeping system to combat the “harm” of misinformation on climate change as well as other areas. “The pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm,” Coons said. “But I’d urge you to reconsider that because helping to disseminate climate denialism, in my view, further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal also warned that he and his colleagues would not tolerate any “backsliding or retrenching” by “failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” He demanded “the same kind of robust content modification” from the companies – the new Orwellian term for censorship.
Others have sought even more “robust” action. For years, Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, have called for corporate censorship on a variety of subjects.
Last year, Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney of California wrote a letter to cable carriers like AT&T to ask why they are still allowing people to watch FOX News. (For the record, I appear as a FOX legal analyst). The members stressed that “not all TV news sources are the same” and called the companies to account for their role in allowing such “dissemination.”
Washington Post columnist and CNN analyst Max Boot also wrote that cable providers should “step in and kick FOX News off.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof insisted that “cable providers should be asked why they distribute channels that peddle lies.”
CNN’s media expert Brian Stelter has called for censorship as “a harm reduction model.”
Calling for companies to protect us from ourselves is the ultimate in enlightened despotism. It is ironic that Warren has denounced the use of “racist” algorithms in biometric technology like facial recognition. She objects to the error rate in such algorithms but has few such concerns when other algorithms are used to curtail free speech.
The embrace of corporate censorship reflects a change in attitude of many toward free speech. Once the very defining right of our constitutional system, it is now more often portrayed as an existential threat to that system. Speech is now “harmful” and allowing the expression of unpopular opinions is treated as an act of an accomplice.
Once free speech is defined as harmful or violent, the algorithms can take it from there. At the urging of our leaders companies like Amazon can censor “everything for the people, nothing by the people.”
We can then live under the enlightened despotism of governing algorithms that protect us from our dangerous curiosities.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley