By / Sep 16

My family lives just outside of a small town in Tennessee with a historic downtown district. Like many small towns throughout our nation, we have a downtown square that serves as a hub. In prior generations, these public squares were gathering places for everyone. People regularly traveled in from the outskirts of town to shop, eat, and do business. They would also come together for community events and to freely engage with one another. While many historic downtown public squares have been abandoned in light of the growth of suburbs, there is a renewed interest in revitalizing these historic neighborhoods and to provide a place for communities to gather once again — especially in a digital age that has led to increasing isolation.

These public gathering places serve as an apt metaphor for a period when much of our daily communication, commerce, and community are facilitated in the digital public square of social media and online connectivity. With the rise of the internet and various social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and massive online retailers and internet companies like Amazon and Google — these new digital public squares promised to bring about a vibrant era of connectivity and togetherness across distances, more diverse communities, and more access to information. Many of these initial promises were made in light of oppressive regimes throughout the world that stifled free speech, suppressed human rights, violated religious freedom, and limited access to information in order to maintain control over other human beings made in the very image of God. 

Ethical challenges in the digital age

While technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society. Each day we are bombarded with fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, ever growing polarization, and more information than we could ever hope to process. We are regularly faced with challenges where wisdom and truth are needed, yet faith is not always welcomed in the public square and in the important debates over digital governance. In truth, technology has always been used and abused by those who seek to hold on to power and wield it to suppress free expression all around the world. But today, these threats seem more visceral and dangerous to our way of life than ever before.

One of the most challenging ethical issues of our day with technology is centered around the proper role of digital governance and the ethical boundaries of free expression in the digital public square. Many have recently begun to question the role of the technology industry over our public discourse, as well as the responsibilities of individuals, third-party companies, and even the role of the government in digital governance. While much of the dangerous, illegal, and elicit content is rightly moderated, questions remain as to what kind of ideas or speech are to be welcomed in the digital public square and how we’re to maintain various ethical boundaries as we seek to uphold free expression and religious freedom for all. 

On one hand, our digital public squares are very public and have an incredibly diverse group of community members. But on the other hand, there is often immense pressure to conform to certain secular ethical principles that tend to push people of faith out of public conversations and debates simply based on their deeply held beliefs about God, the nature of humanity, and how we are to navigate these challenges to free expression and religious freedom. 

A new research project

The complex nature of the questions surrounding ethics and religion in the digital age is exactly why I am excited to announce that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is pioneering a new research project called the Digital Public Square. This project is designed to help provide the local church and the technology industry with thoughtful resources that will help everyone engage these important debates over digital governance and promote free expression as well as religious freedom for all. We seek to cast a robust vision for public theology and ethical engagement in a technological society — a vision grounded in a historical understanding of the role of the church in society and in the unchanging Word of God. While some believe that religion has no role to play in a modern society, we believe that our faith is central to how we engage these pressing issues and live faithfully in the digital age.

The Digital Public Square project will gather some of the best voices from across academia, journalism, public policy, think tanks, and most importantly, the local church to clarify the state of the digital public square and to cast a vision for Christian engagement in the areas of content moderation, online governance, and engagement with the technology industry as a whole. Just as Christians have sought to develop a robust public theology on matters of church and state relations for many generations, Christians must also think deeply about how God would call us to engage the challenges of technology and these companies that operate around the globe in vastly different cultural contexts. We will seek to answer questions surrounding the nature of free expression, the role of democratic values around the world, and best practices for cultivating a truly diverse digital society where people of faith are a vital part of these important conversations.

We will do so in a four-prong approach that will extend throughout 2021 and 2022. The project will include an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square, a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance, and numerous resources for the local church to use in order to engage and bear witness to the gospel in the digital age. These resources will include two different book-length volumes: Following Jesus in a Digital Age with B&H Publishing, and The Digital Public Square: Ethics and Religion in a Technological Society from B&H Academic in 2022. The latter will feature contributions from 14 leading thinkers from across society addressing the pressing issues of digital governance, such as the nature of the public square, US and international technology policy, religious freedom, hate speech/violence, seuxality and gender issues, pornography and other objectionable content, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and the rise of global digital authoritarianism. 

To learn more about the Digital Public Square project and to receive project updates, along with our weekly content on technology ethics, visit ERLC.com/digital.

By / Apr 12

Last week was a particularly busy week for the technology industry at the nation’s highest court. First, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Google’s favor in a decadeslong court battle with Oracle over the use of certain software code to build the Android operating system. Oracle claimed that Google’s use of the code violated federal copyright law. Then, the high court released its decision in the case Biden vs. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. This particular case was ruled moot, and the lower decision was dismissed. The case was originally titled Trump vs. Knight. It was changed with the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden since the case revolved around the question of the president’s ability to block access to the public on a social media platform.

What was the case about?

The original lawsuit was filed back in July 2017 by the Knight First Amendment Institute and seven social media users against President Trump on account that he had blocked these seven individuals on Twitter after they criticized him or his policies. Being blocked by the president meant that these users could no longer see or respond to his posts on the platform. As veteran court reporter Amy Howe wrote, “The plaintiffs alleged that blocking them on Twitter violated the First Amendment, and the district court agreed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld that ruling.” The lower court ruled that the president’s Twitter account was a public forum and that the government violated the rights of these individuals by blocking access to it.

On Aug. 20, 2020, a petition for a writ of certiorari was filed. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, but it was also during an election year. In January, the Trump administration filed a brief indicating to “the justices that, although the 2nd Circuit’s decision was worthy of their review, the case would become moot once Joe Biden succeeded Trump as president on Jan. 20.” Amy Howe explains, “Trump had been sued as the president, rather than in his personal capacity, the administration explained, but Biden would not have any control over Trump’s Twitter account.” Then after the attack on the United States Capitol over alleged election fraud, President Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter over the claim that he incited the violence (even though the administration said that this suspension could be overturned, so that fact should not have bearing on the case.) All of these shifting circumstances ultimately led the court to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacate the judgement, and remand the case back to the Second Circuit with instruction to dismiss the case as moot.

What does this case have to do with online content moderation?

On April 5, Justice Clarence Thomas released a concurring opinion alongside the court’s ruling. Justice Thomas explained in detail the court’s deliberations and the reasoning behind the decision to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari. But he went on to connect this case to the larger questions surrounding the immense responsibility and control that certain technology companies have in civic discourse given our public dependence on and the massive size of technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google.

Justice Thomas writes, “Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties. We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.” He went on to state that the government might have a compelling interest to intervene in this new power dynamic by possibly limiting the right of a private company to exclude. Justice Thomas explained, “If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude.” He submitted two possible legal doctrines for consideration, designating social media as “common carriers” or as “public accommodations,” both of which are highly controversial in digital governance debates, especially among legal media scholars.

Justice Thomas argued that the “common carrier” designation has been applied to other industries with considerable market size, such as those in transportation and communication. These industries are given special privileges by the government, but also have restrictions placed on their ability to exclude. “By giving these companies special privileges, governments place them into a category distinct from other companies and closer to some functions, like the postal service, that the State has traditionally undertaken.” This particular argument may overlook the difference between social media as simply a carrier of information, rather than a curator of that information posted by users. 

The other designation of “public accommodation” would apply regardless of the relative market size of the companies, given the ongoing scholarly debate about whether market power is a necessary aspect for a company to be considered a common carrier. Justice Thomas wrote that these companies may not “not ‘carry’ freight, passengers, or communications,” but nevertheless they could have their right to exclude curtailed given their public utility. “If the analogy between common carriers and digital platforms is correct, then an answer may arise for dissatisfied platform users who would appreciate not being blocked: laws that restrict the platform’s right to exclude.” While he acknowledges that technology companies do indeed have their own First Amendment rights, he nevertheless argues that these rights may need to be diminished in light of the influence this industry has over our public discourse. This is a complex situation, especially for conservatives who traditionally resist the government’s intrusion into the rights of individuals and corporations.

Overall, Justice Thomas explores each of these options as well as their potential pitfalls throughout the concurrence. He rightly points out that these decisions would need to be enacted by various legislatures, but they also might be under the prerogative of the courts depending on the contours of the cases brought forth. This opinion, while not holding any enforceable action, is significant because a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court is making these types of arguments to reign in the power of the technology industry—an issue that both Democrats and Republican have been pursuing , even if on different ideological grounds.

What does this mean?

Justice Thomas acknowledged the tenuous realities in the current public policy debates over the role that these digital platforms play in our public discourse in light of their immense size and influence, including their ability to moderate user content. He is correct in saying that applying old doctrines to the new challenges of digital platforms is an extremely complicated matter, whether it be on issues of free speech, questions of public accommodation, or the nature of religious expression online.

As legal expert and free speech attorney David French correctly states, “Millions of Americans are deeply concerned about the power and reach of America’s largest tech companies, but their concerns often diverge sharply depending on their partisan affiliation.” French goes on to say, “The two sides are increasingly united in wanting more government regulation. They’re deeply divided as to what those regulations should say.” French, as others have pointed out, is concerned about government intervention in these matters since it may jeopardize the countless First Amendment victories that have been forged in recent years.

While Christians may disagree about the best path forward in these particular debates, we all must acknowledge that we live in a time where religious speech is increasingly seen as at odds with acceptable public discourse and free expression is often hampered in the pursuit of secularism. We need more believers engaged in this discussions who understand that the technology industry must be a major element in a full-orbed public theology. These types of decisions are crucial for the health of our democracy and the future of religion in the digital public square. 

Even with the immense complexity of these debates, one thing is abundantly clear: the dignity of our neighbor is at stake around the world. We must keep that truth central to this debate over digital governance, whether here in the United States or abroad under the repressive hand of authoritarian regimes. Though these issues may at times seem just to be about tweets, posts, and even the contours of particular content moderation policies, they must be seen as ways that human beings, created in God’s very image, are able to communicate, express themselves, and do life in an ever-increasing digital society.

By / Feb 26

On Sunday afternoon, conservative scholar and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Ryan T. Anderson received an online message from a would-be reader that his book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment was no longer available for purchase on Amazon’s website. The 2018 release from Encounter Books had been pulled by Amazon, without any prior notification to the author or publisher, for violating Amazon’s offensive content policy (though it would not clarify the reason for the move for several days). By Wednesday morning, and after considerable public outcry, the company released a statement about the book being removed from the marketplace. Amazon said it reserved the right not to sell certain products that violated its content guidelines. The statement claimed “All retailers make decisions about what selection they choose to offer and we do not take selection decisions lightly.”

When the book was originally removed by Amazon, search results recommended other works on transgenderism but from a very different ideological perspective, including a work written specifically as a rebuttal to Anderson’s 2018 book. As of this writing, the link is now a “dead link,” or 404 page on Amazon’s website, but the book has yet to be relisted. In the book, Anderson seeks to answer many of the questions that arise from the transgender movement and seeks to offer a scientific, philosophical, and ethical look at how transgenderism is seeking to rewrite human nature and reject biological realities.

In an essay about Amazon’s action to remove the book, Anderson noted that the book was praised by “the former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a longtime psychology professor at NYU, a professor of medical ethics at Columbia Medical School, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, a distinguished professor at Harvard Law School, an eminent legal philosopher at Oxford, and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.”

While there are many questions still unanswered about why this book was removed and why the decision was made three years after the book’s initial publication (and multiple reprints), one thing remains abundantly clear: a private company that sells nearly three out of every four books is using its outsized influence to shift the public conversation on a critical issue. There is little doubt that Amazon’s decision to silently remove the book from its cyber shelves was intentional. In the short term, this move will only help Anderson’s work on transgenderism gain a wider audience. But in the long term, it will have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas in our society. It is also likely to silence voices who dissent from the progressive agenda of the sexual revolution.

Conflicting content guidelines

Amazon, like many technology companies, including popular social media platforms, has a set of content guidelines about what it will allow on its platform. The guidelines begin by saying that “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important, including content that may be considered objectionable.” This is a laudable practice for a book retailer, especially for a company that began in 1994 with the goal of selling books online across the nation. Broad access to the written word allows for the free exchange of ideas and ultimately strengthens the social fabric of our nation as we openly debate important issues and engage ideas contrary to our own, even those ideas we find controversial or disagreeable.

But further down in their content guidelines, Amazon clearly walks this statement back. Apparently, “content that may be considered objectionable” does not include specific types of objectionable content. Amazon goes on to state, “We don’t sell certain content including content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.” On balance, most of these exceptions appear to be reasonable and beneficial to society as a whole. However, “other material we deem inappropriate or offensive” is a vague and expansive statement that completely undermines the earlier goal of tolerance for opposing viewpoints.

This exception purportedly gives license for Amazon to remove any number of items from the marketplace, including three-year-old high selling titles that present a contrary viewpoint to the reigning secular opinions about human sexuality. Anderson’s book is now completely unavailable on Amazon, even to those who might want to engage the work in order to debunk his arguments or present an alternative viewpoint consistent with the tenets of the sexual revolution. All of this from a company that itself profited from the sales of the work for over three years and still allows other “intolerable” works that denigrate entire groups of people, including people of faith, for their view of human sexuality and human flourishing.

A better vision for the public square

Recently, many questions have arisen concerning the actions of these nascent technological marketplaces and social media companies to regulate content on their platforms. These questions include concerns about the stifling of free speech, the role of government in regulating private corporations like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, and the extent to which such companies are free to determine and enforce these policies on their own.

At present, Amazon’s removal of Anderson’s book from the marketplace does not technically involve issues of free speech under the First Amendment. And it is important to note that Anderson’s work is currently sold by other online retailers such as Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and even on his publisher’s website. But Amazon’s removal of a popular book under this overly broad—and easily abused—“inappropriate or offensive” policy is deeply distressing. It also raises pressing questions Christians must answer as we seek to build out a public theology for this technological age.

Digital content moderation or removal often leads to claims that a person’s freedom of speech or even freedom of religion is being violated. But this view fails to recognize that the First Amendment specifically protects individuals from the overreaching hands of government, not from content policies of private companies (no matter how errant or ill-advised such policies might be). Again, in this case there is no doubt that Amazon sought to wield its influence to shape public opinion on a critical matter of public concern by silencing dissenting voices. And given Amazon’s size and influence, it is possible that actions like this could result in inquiries about antitrust or lead to federal oversight, which could override Amazon’s ability to set its own content policies. 

In our view, Amazon is completely wrong for removing this book from the marketplace. Not only did Amazon violate its own stated policy of including content it deems objectionable, but it did so to deny users access to a countervailing argument to the ideology it deems in vogue. No one needs to be protected from a robust and informed public debate. As Alan Jacobs puts it, “Amazon clearly believe(s) there is only one reason to read a book. You read a book because you agree with it and want it to confirm what you already believe.” In this age of tolerance and inclusion, it is abundantly clear that only certain “acceptable” ideas will be tolerated, which is actually no form of tolerance at all. 

Time will tell if Amazon decides to reverse course and restore the book. Regardless of this particular outcome, it is obvious that we are living in a new era of human history—one in which powerful and often unrivaled technology companies wield enormous amounts of power over our public discourse. As Christians, the proper response is not fear or panic but to engage with convictional kindness, even as we work to maintain an open digital public square. We can engage these pressing concerns from a place of steadfast hope and confidence knowing that while our beliefs may not always be popular or fashionable, our beliefs reflect reality and ultimately lead to human flourishing.