Silicon Valley's efforts to pull the plug on dissenting opinions began with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, who have proven to be innovators in devising excuses to suspend ideologically disfavored accounts. Until now, the deleted or suspended accounts have mostly been unpaid users of social media—libertarian law professor Glenn Reynolds, actor James Woods, radio talk show host Jesse Kelly, Infowars provocateur Alex Jones. But paying customers may be the next targets for social media "deplatforming."
At a company-wide meeting in November, Amazon executives tried to fend off a revolt by employees upset about the company's decision to sell its facial recognition technology to U.S. police agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some Amazon workers also objected to Palantir, an analytics firm that relies on government contracts, being allowed to purchase Amazon cloud services.
This effort to deplatform paying customers has spread throughout the tech industry: Some 100 Microsoft employees signed an open letter complaining that, by providing email and calendar services, their company was "complicit" in ICE's border enforcement policies. Salesforce and Google employees have staged similar protests.
With the exception of Google suspending a Department of Defense contract, tech execs have thus far proven hesitant to turn away governmental and corporate customers willing to write checks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. Workers have responded by accusing management of ignoring their complaints. "I don't think Amazon leadership addressed the concerns brought up in the question," an anonymous Amazon employee told BuzzFeed News after the company's November meeting. "There is no way [for us] to hold leadership responsible."
The first problem with this strategy is that deplatforming won't solve the issues tech workers are upset about. Civil libertarians have no love for ICE or the surveillance state, but facial recognition technology is likely here to stay. If Amazon won't sell it to law enforcement, someone else will. Haranguing any one company in hopes that it won't provide services that are perfectly legal only delays the inevitable, without addressing the fact that we need more oversight over how law enforcement agencies use surveillance technology.
There's another problem with deplatforming, which is that it's open-ended. If ICE can be denied contracts with tech companies, why not the Republican Party, which proclaims in its 2018 platform, "We support building a wall along our southern border"? Or the Libertarian Party, which holds views that differ from progressive shibboleths on the environment, education, Social Security, collective bargaining, and private employers' rights to hire and fire whoever they want, including members of protected classes?
The next deplatforming candidate could be groups advocating gun rights or religious freedom: Why should they have the privilege of purchasing services from Google Cloud, Microsoft OneDrive, or Amazon, especially when their views appear to be repugnant to so many people who work at those companies?
While we're at it, will Silicon Valley's progressives march around their pleasantly landscaped campuses to decry their employers' decision to accept ads and provide other paid services for President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans running for election in 2020?
It will be an unwelcome development in the culture wars if companies that today sell software or services to anyone who can afford them change their minds, and instead sell only to businesses or government agencies seen as politically aligned. Such an evolution would be worrisome whether it were a response to internal pressure from employees or external pressure from government officials. It was, after all, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D–Conn.) who once pressed Amazon to shut down WikiLeaks' website. To its discredit, and despite the absence of a law requiring the company to pull the plug, the e-commerce giant complied.
A ray of hope is that few, if any, company founders and CEOs are calling for deplatforming paying customers. Google co-founder Sergey Brin joined the January 2017 airport protests against Trump's initial—and poorly drafted—executive order on immigration. But Brin, who owns nearly half of the company's voting shares, has not endorsed his more radical employees' political demands. On the other hand, despite lamenting in a 2012 post that no matter what happened in that year's election, "our government will still be a giant bonfire of partisanship," Brin has not publicly criticized the deplatforming calls either. Among Silicon Valley's billionaires, political courage is in too-short supply.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Deplatforming Is a Dangerous Game".