March 7, 2020 | Aaron Mercer, IFA Contributing Writer
Google got some good news last week when a federal court took its side in a lawsuit filed by Prager University. Appalled that Google’s YouTube was restricting access to more than 100 of its educational videos, PragerU claimed the platform was violating its constitutionally protected free speech and was guilty of falsely advertising a corporate commitment to free expression.
PragerU is a nonprofit organization that regularly produces short videos with persuasive conservative perspectives on a variety of topics. The pieces are very popular and it made sense to post them on YouTube, the massive video sharing site and 2nd most popular search engine (after its parent Google). However, in 2016 PragerU began to notice that some of its videos were inaccessible to the general public. They had been tagged for YouTube’s Restricted Mode that is intended as a preventative screen against “potentially mature content.” In addition to parents and other cautious individuals, public spaces like libraries and universities often understandably utilize Restricted Mode.
If you look at which PragerU videos YouTube decided to restrict, you will notice that they include pieces exploring the Ten Commandments, the founding of Israel, problems with socialism, and more. They do not seem to fit “mature content” concerns like drugs, sex, and violence. Indeed, given the presence of other more clearly alarming videos not tagged by YouTube, as well as the existence of videos on the platform exploring similar content to PragerU’s but from other perspectives, it’s not difficult to see why PragerU felt it was facing intentional discrimination.
If successful, PragerU’s lawsuit would have been a major blow to Google and other tech titans. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that YouTube’s ubiquity makes it a “state actor” limited by the First Amendment. It also found that “braggadocio about its commitment to free speech constitutes opinions” that are not in and of themselves violations of false advertising law.
That was good news for Google. The bad news is that situations of such blatant bias continue to stir up angst against technology companies. Just 5 years ago Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of Americans thought tech businesses were having a positive effect on the country. However, clear evidence that public trust is eroding comes in more recent polling showing a 21 percent drop in that approval rating.
High profile members of both parties are increasing scrutiny on technology giants. Politico reported last week that U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who referenced Silicon Valley’s “huge behemoths” during his confirmation hearing, is now taking direct supervision of the Department of Justice’s Big Tech investigation. Another extensive review is expected to wrap up soon in the House of Representatives, and three other federal and state level antitrust probes are ongoing. Any of these could spell big trouble for Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, among others.
In addition to the antitrust hammer, Barr and some leaders on Capitol Hill have poked at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – an online liability shield that is a “sacred cow” for many technophiles. In fact, just this week Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) partnered with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in introducing legislation that will tinker with the shield to make Big Tech earn (not just be gifted) its immunity by maintaining certified best practices to prevent online child sexual exploitation.
This is a pivotal time for efforts to keep Big Tech accountable without stifling innovation. We should remember to be grateful for the good advances of technology companies, and they should always remember to honor the free soil that allowed their seeds to bloom. Please be praying for leaders like Attorney General Barr and lawmakers, as well as top officials in Google and other tech companies. Our country needs wisdom right now to continue pursuing a path embracing a a free, fair, and flourishing internet environment.
PragerU creates high quality, persuasive conservative content. It won’t matter so much if YouTube and Google censor them if you share their videos. Here’s a great short video on the difference between “liberal” and “left”: https://www.prageru.com/video/left-or-liberal.
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena and Christian associations. A seasoned strategist, he aids organizations with research, analysis, and writing services, and he reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com.