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Alex Jones and Infowars test the limit of free speech on the internet


Alex Jones has a new war on his hands.

Screenshot by CNET

Alex Jones is going to war with Silicon Valley.

As one of the internet’s most controversial personalities, making outlandish claims and spreading conspiracy theories through his Infowars website has made Jones a household name in political circles.

Initially, it was for his baseless accusation that 9/11 was an inside job, but in the past couple years, he’s claimed surviving high schoolers from a Parkland, Florida, shooting are “crisis actors.” (They aren’t.) He’s also said the murder of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary was a hoax. (False.) And that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring. (Not true.)

Critics have cried fowl, saying Jones’s particular brand of unproven accusations whip his fans into a frenzy, after which they harass, threaten and intimidate. In one extreme case, the parents of a Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victim told The New York Times they receive so many death threats and harassing messages they’ve had to relocate hundreds of miles from where their 6-year old son is buried.

Silicon Valley tech companies, already under the microscope for their mishandling of alleged Russian propaganda designed to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, were reticent to take action. But on Sunday, Aug. 5, Apple removed five of six podcasts Infowars makes available through iTunes and Apple’s Podcasts app. Within a day, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and LinkedIn had banned Alex Jones and Infowars as well.

Jones’s supporters say the moves are the latest example of tech companies silencing voices they don’t agree with. His detractors say it was a long time coming.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Who is Alex Jones and what is Infowars?

Jones is an Austin, Texas-based founder of Infowars, a website that bills itself as “the resistance” and uses the tagline: “There’s a war for your mind!”

The media platform, founded in 1999, has attracted notable fans including Roger Stone, a Republican party strategist who worked on various presidential campaigns, and President Donald Trump, who praised Jones for his “amazing” reputation.

Jones is known for his dramatic shows, in which he slams political targets with fiery rhetoric interspersed with advertisements for supplements and survivalist gear. He’s estimated to sell as much as $12.5 million worth of diet supplements a year, according to New York magazine.

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Why does Jones matter to the tech industry?

In some ways, Jones represents the hairiest of issues tech companies face. Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube market themselves as bastions of free speech and a new way to communicate.

Their technology helped power the Arab Spring, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements.

But it turns out that propagandists, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists have also found these sites can expand their influence and connect their fans. Which leads us to Jones, whose Infowars has used YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in particular as services to expand his reach.

So what have tech companies done about Jones until now?

Tech companies have for the most part kept a hands-off approach toward what people post on their sites, with the exception of extreme cases like harassment, child porn, revenge porn and terrorism.

That’s gotten tougher with people like Trump, who’s used social media to broadcast some of his most controversial statements ranging from threats against other countries to personal insults against women’s looks. (Twitter ultimately changed its policies to allow for Trump’s tweeting.)

With people like Jones, it’s even tougher. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has said he doesn’t want to be an arbiter of truth, and doesn’t want to punish people for getting things wrong. Twitter and YouTube, for their part, have largely chosen to keep their deliberations out of the public eye.

Isn’t the tech industry violating the US Constitution’s First Amendment free speech protections?

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That first part means the government can’t write any laws limiting your free speech, but it doesn’t say anything about companies or social networks.

Some critics have argued that because of Facebook’s massive size — counting 2.5 billion people who log on to Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp at least once a month — it shouldn’t be up to the company to make such decisions. In effect, it’s a town square that should be subject to similar free speech rules. Facebook’s Zuckerberg says he disagrees, and in testimony on Capitol Hill in April, he argued that his policing of posts by terrorists and extremists would be impossible if he adopted a first amendment for Facebook.

But isn’t it a slippery slope if we let tech companies start censoring people on their service?

There are many people who appear to agree with this concern, particularly because tech companies haven’t been fully transparent about how they make these decisions. Jason Kint, who runs Digital Content Next, a trade group for online news sites, said without a more transparent approach, the companies risk being accused of censorship.

“We still want them to be very cautious about anything that is close to censorship,” Kint said. “Being crystal clear about their policies and how this is a violation of their policies would be helpful.”

Isn’t this all a ploy for tech companies to censor conservative voices?

So far, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others have insisted they are not censoring conservative voices, but rather taking action against specific people and accounts that violate their harassment and anti-terrorism policies.

Facebook, for example, said Infowars was taken down “for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”

So, Facebook, YouTube, Apple, LinkedIn, Spotify and Pinterest have all shut off Infowars. What about Twitter?

In its earlier days, Twitter said it considered itself “The free speech wing of the free speech party.” As such, the company has historically been cautious about taking any action against users on its service.

On Monday, after other tech companies took action against Jones and Infowars, Twitter said it was not taking any action because it was not currently in violation of Twitter or its Periscope live streaming service’s rules.

What does Infowars say?

The company didn’t respond to a request for comment, but on a stream Monday, Jones said the move was “cultural imperialism of the San Francisco tech elite.”

Who has kicked Jones off their service so far?

Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Apple iTunes and Podcasts, Spotify, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouPorn.

Who still allows Jones to use their platform?

Twitter, Twitter’s Periscope, Gab.ai, Facebook’s Instagram, Google +, Snapchat, Ustream, Vimeo, Flickr, Disclose.tv, Minds, TuneIn, Stitcher.

It’s also worth noting Google, YouTube and Apple have allowed some Infowars material to remain, such as the company’s mobile apps and at least one of its affiliated podcasts.

CNET’s Caitlin Petrakovitz, Mark Serrels and Joan E. Solsman contributed to this report.

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data mining scandal.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.

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