Tech companies capitalize on misconceptions of ‘free speech’

Since the 1980s, harassment and extremism have found a home on the internet.

Today’s social media companies could limit this type of speech but often choose not to because it serves their bottom line, said Mary Anne Franks, the Eugene L. and Barbara A. Bernard Professor in Intellectual Property, Technology and Civil Rights Law at George Washington Law School, in a presentation Dec. 7 at Gates Hall.

Freedom of Expression

Franks was the first Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science Distinguished Speaker on Free Expression, and her talk, “Selling Out Free Speech,” was part of Cornell’s Freedom of Expression theme year. The college established the speaker series as a way to begin having conversations around critical issues in the information age.

“There are many hard questions that we, as a tech community and part of the citizenry, need to tackle,” said Kavita Bala, dean of Cornell Bowers CIS, in her welcoming remarks. “Who should decide what content we see? How should they make that decision? Who should we trust in this era of potential disinformation?”

In her talk, Franks said tech companies have invoked the First Amendment to allow racism, misogyny and religious zealotry to proliferate on social media sites. But while the First Amendment protects an individual’s free speech from being curtailed by the government, it does not stop companies from restricting speech, and importantly, it allows private actors not to speak.

“The First Amendment protects the freedom of private actors to ignore, exclude, criticize and refuse to associate with speech,” Franks said. “And tech companies, even though it may not seem like it sometimes, are also private actors.”

She pointed out that many Americans erroneously believe that any restriction on speech is a violation of the First Amendment, which tech companies use to their advantage. By selling the idea of “free” speech on their platforms – in the dual sense that it is unregulated and unpaid – these companies profit by driving engagement, surveilling users and selling their data.

In theory, the First Amendment should protect all speech, but most often it is raised to defend anti-democratic expression that serves the interests of powerful groups, Franks said. Online, free speech is invoked most often to defend reckless expression because conflict leads to more engagement and more profit. In the process, these companies allow the worst actors to engage in abuse, such as “revenge porn” and extremist propaganda. These kinds of reckless speech have the effect of silencing their targets, resulting in a loss of free speech for vulnerable groups and degrading our democracy, she said.

Franks gave the example of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. “The reality is that the social media platforms allowed violent rhetoric to flourish because it was profitable, not because they were trying to honor First Amendment obligations that they did not in fact have,” she said.

Despite frequent congressional hearings on the tech industry, the U.S. government has struggled to regulate these platforms, Franks said. Thus, tech industries are rarely held accountable for the harm they cause.

“The First Amendment is intended to serve the values of truth and autonomy and democracy, all of which are jeopardized by an information ecosystem that is polluted and weaponized by extremists and dominated by corporate interests,” Franks said. “What the tech industry is selling is not free speech and it's time that Americans stop buying it.”

Patricia Waldron is a writer for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

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