If your content doesn’t appear on Google or Twitter, do you exist?

In the world of attention-getting, getting banished or downgraded on the world’s key attention platforms is frustrating. Or worse. The latest example is a claim of invisibility by Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. She claims that after the June presidential debate, just as she was gaining steam from a solid performance, Google deactivated the ads she had purchased on its platform, blocking people from finding her content when they searched for her. 

In recent days, most of the claims of blocking, throttling, shadow-banning, and demonetization on digital platforms has come from conservatives. Gabbard is a progressive, but some wonder whether her status as an outsider – as many of the conservatives are – is even more central to the seeming trend of suppression. Gabbard is suing Google for $50 million. She says Google’s excuses for why it deactivate her account for several crucial hours, before reactivating it, don’t add up. Much of her legal brief is couched in the Constitution. 

To this non-lawyer, Gabbard’s complaint seems rather weak. At least legally. The First Amendment protects Americans from government encroachments on speech, religion, and assembly. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee citizens the positive right to be heard on private platforms. What’s more, the big tech firms enjoy their own First Amendment rights. 

And yet, just because Gabbard’s complaint is feeble with regard to the First Amendment doesn’t mean it lacks substance as an example of a very real problem on the Internet. The blocking and throttling of Internet data based on viewpoints may not violate the Constitution, but it does violate our sense of fairness and our idea of what the Internet should be – a generally free and open platform for communication and content. 

Why does this keep happening? Are these incidents due to technical glitches, imperfect algorithms, human error, or bureaucratic complexity? Perhaps so. But why do the vast majority of these blackouts, demonetizations, suspensions, suppressions, and snafus seem to happen to people and groups with particular political or social views? 

Hard numbers are difficult to come by. Some studies have shown that suppressive  activities by the big online platforms overwhelmingly target disfavored views. In the most recent example, psychologist Robert Epstein testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Google manipulates search results “on a massive scale.” Rival analyses, such as this one from The Economist magazine, question the existence of clear systemic bias. 

Regardless of how systemic or one-sided the bias is, however, the large number of obvious and egregious manipulations demonstrates a clear problem. 

Think about it this way, using the sacrament of net neutrality as an example: If internet service providers (ISPs) from time to time suppressed the websites, videos, or advertisements of political groups, but we couldn’t determine with absolute certainty that the bias was constant or targeted only one side, would net neutrality advocates – or most Americans, for that matter – believe the ISPs were delivering the service they promised? Would we believe in the basic fairness of the Internet? If the website or phone line of a political candidate or business went black right at the moment when they expected a rush of contributions or orders, would net neutrality advocates shrug and say, “Well, the ISP doesn’t block them most of the time”?

No, we’d object to the individual manipulation itself, regardless of whether the bias fell mostly on one side of some arbitrary ledger. And regardless of whether some website or video works most of the time. The possibility that the big tech platforms are targeting one side would, if true, only make the problem worse. 

According to the ideal of net neutrality pushed by the big tech firms over the last 15 years, the suppression of merely one pixel of one frame of one video would violate the most sacred foundations of the Internet. 

I never subscribed to this view. Transmitting zettabytes of data across global networks is a herculean feat, technically and business-wise. Many of the proposals from Congress and the FCC were technologically incompetent and hyper-regulatory. They would have slowed investment and innovation on the Internet. But these proposals, which demanded equality of ever bit and byte on the Internet, were championed by the very firms who now manipulate data in ways and in volumes that the ISPs never dreamed of, let alone did.

The big tech platforms have a difficult job. Curating the world’s information is no easy task. On many edge cases of truly dangerous or legally dubious content, reasonable people can disagree. But many of these are not edge cases. In too many cases, the bias is clear, and insider whistleblowers are confirming the bad behavior. 

Gabbard and others like her may not have a First Amendment case. But might they have a case based on deceptive or unfair practices? I don’t know. We should, however, ask, are the tech platforms living up to their own terms of service? Are they delivering on their promises? And if they are technically living up to their TOSes, but the TOSes themselves are sneaky or deceptive, then we should demand better. Recent demands for improved privacy protections seem to be working to affect behavior. And seem to be leading lawmakers toward a general law updating our privacy rules for a digital world. 

And as digital platforms of all types expand into every part of the economy and society – going beyond today’s digital town square – establishing basic norms of fairness and openness will be crucial. Most of us don’t want Washington, D.C., to over-regulate our technology industries. But that doesn’t mean we can’t demand better behavior and work to promote free, open, and secure networks. 

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