First Amendment in Peril?

Aaron Renn, City Journal, August 18, 2017

In the marketplace, traditionally understood, when a company produces a poor product or mistreats its customers, it faces market discipline—new ones come in and steal market share. That’s the theory, at least.

Too bad it’s not true right now, at least not on the Internet.

Google and Apple, with a combined 98 percent market share in mobile-phone operating systems, have banned Gab, an upstart Twitter competitor with a free-speech policy quaintly modeled on the First Amendment itself, from their app stores. Google cited “hate speech” as its reason for exclusion; Gab doesn’t censor.

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Because the Internet is now majority mobile, and a growing majority of all web traffic comes from mobile devices, the First Amendment is now effectively dead in the mobile sphere.

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Twitter ran into controversy last year when it was accused of censoring conservative voices. Gab founders Andrew Torba, an alumnus of Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator accelerator, and Ekrem Büyükkaya saw a market opportunity for a competitor focused on free speech.

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Last August, they launched Gab, a Twitter-like app where, according to company spokesman Utsav Sanduja, “Whatever is permissible under the First Amendment is what Gab allows onto its site.”

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Gab built an app for Apple’s iOS operating system, but Apple wouldn’t approve it. This means that iPhone and iPad users can’t use the Gab app because users can’t install applications on those devices unless Apple approves them. Gab’s Android app was available through Google’s app store until yesterday, when Google banned it.

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While Android users can install unapproved apps, it’s a cumbersome process.

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But it’s difficult to credit Gab as a white-supremacist site when its cofounder is a Turkish Kurd and Muslim.

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Gab spokesman Sanduja is a South Asian Hindu from Canada.

Gab points out that other major social-media platforms have hosted ISIS activity, and child-porn rings, facilitated drug dealing, and carried live streams of murder, torture, and other crimes. Yet all are still allowed by Google. Google itself actually hired Chris “moot” Poole, founder of the notorious website 4chan, known not just for offensive speech but also for the distribution of hard-core pornography. Police have made multiple child pornography arrests associated with 4chan. There remain multiple 4chan apps in Google’s app store.

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Both the Apple and Google app stores are private markets owned by those companies, which act as their effective governments. You cannot easily start a new mobile business without their permission. If your app follows the First Amendment, there’s a good chance that you’ll be rejected. Regardless of how one views Gab or any other application or group, two Silicon Valley companies should not be the governors of the mobile Internet—which, in due course, may be indistinguishable from the Internet itself.

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