Every day we have technology all around us. Our homes, cars, jobs and lives are more wired than ever before. Not just the standard “smart” systems that make most of us feel stupid because it takes a 500-page manual to find the “on” button, but an ever-present sentient artificial intelligence, waiting for our every command. You can play music, add to your grocery list and order a pizza. So very convenient.

Then there is social media. We share our photos and special moments. Our inner dialogues and favorite recipes. We share where we travel, when we vacation and our everyday maneuverings.

It is wonderful to be able to share photos of family, to keep in touch with those far and near. It is amazing that the other side of the world is only as far away as our keyboards. Suddenly the world didn’t seem that big - and strange, far away places weren’t so strange.

Technology advances fast, and programmers and software engineers are always looking for the next breakthrough....the next must-have app.

But that technology comes at a price, none bigger than the First Amendment.

Tech giants… Google, Facebook, Amazon, You Tube and Twitter are big ones, but are only the tip of the iceberg. Their software is made to “optimize engagement” and then used to collect data on everything you do. They sell this data to third parties as part of the terms of service to which you agreed. These services are “free” because your continued use is necessary for their continued profitable existence.

On it’s face, it’s not that nefarious.

We freely sign up for these services. We provide the content. We immerse ourselves even deeper in the technology. Big Tech gets bigger. It goes global. And it makes deals with governments whose agenda is not really compatible to American ideas and ideals.

Companies which market speaking freely, cooperating with governments to censor not just it’s own citizens, but controlling the speech of Americans within their country’s digital infrastructure. And Big Tech not only condones it, but codifies these speech codes contrary to American law.

Blasphemy laws are regularly used against Americans decrying radical Islamist practices, for example. Facebook calls it “Community Standards”, on Twitter it is “Conversational Health” both amount to Orwellian doublespeak that allows faceless employees, or just “the algorithm” to limit or outright ban speech. Many times that speech is political.

Censoring speech, or books, art or music is not new. Censoring speech that is politically inconvenient has happened throughout history. All that is new are the means of suppression. 

Yes, private companies can dictate use of private platforms.

But what if the platform has become so central to communication, especially political communication, that individual posts aren’t just commentary on the news - they are the news.

Not just Trump tweets, though they are covered by the White House Press Corps quite thoroughly, usually with more commentary than necessary. Before Twitter, it was Facebook posts, group chats and dial-in chat boards. News makers make news, no matter the forum.

The problem is when the technology grows so fast, it grows beyond the government that is tasked with protecting the rights of its citizens. The problem is is exacerbated by politicians who are not experts in technology, and even if they were, the time necessary to pass workable legislation is prohibitive compared to the pace of technology advantages.

The internet, open and free has become centralized and closed, where companies work together to create a harmonious web that is sanitized for corporate marketing and data collection.

Legislation that helped promote the growth of social media and bring about technological marvels now shields tech monopolies that not just bans you off of one platform, but coordinates between platforms and other tech companies to erase your entire online presence, including bank accounts.

Twitter isn’t the only tech giant to ban today’s version of wrong think. Amazon has taken to banning books previously for sale because of complaints of book content by organized activist groups. Facebook has banned news sources, and independent journalists that report inconvenient facts, or on inconvenient events, often from a different perspective than the mainstream media.

Contrary to the prevalent wisdom of Silicon Valley, it is not their responsibility to shield users from ugly or offensive content. Becoming gatekeepers of speech, beyond even the reaches of government regulation, is more than dangerous.

I am still not sure that regulating Silicon Valley as a public utility, as suggested by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz, is the solution. More government is definitely not better government, at least from what I have experienced.

I am intrigued by ideas discussed by First Amendment attorney Robert Barnes, who suggested that current law in some states, California included, could be applied to treat these monopolies as a state actor and hold them as responsible to protect First Amendment rights as the government. Based on the Prune Yard Doctrine, it protects technology companies from liability for user comments, while still protecting the individual right to speech in public forum.

Just Monday, Congressman Devin Nunes filed a lawsuit in Virginia against Twitter. I am intrigued with some of his arguments, and while I would prefer congressmen fixing problems with laws, taking a page from the left and using the courts to set precedent is an interesting turn that wasn’t expected.

Stifling speech, especially speech that is considered bad, doesn’t make it go away.

It just moves it underground.

Staff columnist Toni Butero can be reached at tbutero@mattosnews.com or by calling (209) 862-2222.