For the past eight months, my company has been on the receiving end of a different kind of censorship from America’s Big Tech companies. But not for any of the headline-generating reasons Donald Trump or Parler have been shut down. We’ve been selling bus parts and related supplies to public transit agencies for almost 40 years, and we’re about as low-profile as you can imagine.
We had a significant business initiative shut down by the Big Tech companies that together have become the de facto uber-regulators of the online marketplace. Their overwhelming market share and correlated actions give them remarkable power over what Americans can and cannot obtain online.
Here’s what happened to us: Last year, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, several transit agency customers of ours asked if we could supply masks and other protective gear for their employees and customers.
We said we could, and we developed reliable supply lines in China. We tested the products to make sure they met designated safety standards, and then imported millions of masks with FDA certification.
Our transit customers were happy with the quality, and we invested in inventory to support some direct-to-consumer demand as well. As alarm was rising in the news media over national PPE shortages, we figured we were “doing well by doing good.”
We quickly learned the big guys of the internet did not approve. Starting in May, 2020, we attempted to market the PPE inventory – primarily KN-95 masks we earmarked for consumers -- on Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Our first Facebook ad was seemingly non-controversial brand awareness, explaining why a transit bus parts supplier was selling masks and explaining our company history. Facebook allowed the ad to run for a few weeks, and then abruptly blocked it with no clear explanation back to us.
Shortly after, Facebook suspended our ad account. The masks we were trying to sell were rated by the FDA as 95% effective at filtering particles the size of the COVID virus; meanwhile, ads for companies selling fashionable-but-non-FDA-approved cloth masks were ubiquitous on the site.
Our Twitter account met the same fate and was suspended from advertising. No reasons were shared. At Google, our efforts to buy search advertising for the term “KN95” were similarly rejected.
As a father and employer, I can certainly understand the benefits of cracking down on fly-by-night operations selling sketchy anti-COVID products. But we followed the federal government’s rules and have four decades of easy-to-verify dealings with public entities. What else are we expected to do to confirm our legitimacy?
I tried repeatedly to make our company’s case to all four of these Big Tech companies. In response I received computerized boilerplate responses. When I persisted and finally reached human beings, they were customer service reps who said they had no authority to make changes.
The end result? Warehouses full of FDA-approved safety products needed by millions as the virus counts spike across North America.
I believe in free markets. Nobody owes me shelf space. My business should rise or fall based on the quality of my products and service, not on the strength of my inside connections.
But I am increasingly concerned about the consolidation of power in online commerce. It has given this tiny handful of companies extraordinary “regulatory” power, particularly when they act in concert or through informal signaling. If a company can’t access or do business on those platforms, its products are for all intents and purposes frozen out of the marketplace.
Concerns about false advertising in a pandemic are understandable, but it’s still important to acknowledge that advertising plays a critical role in educating consumers about their choices. KN95 masks or cloth masks? Consumers receive important cues from ads, and can research and verify what they read, thereby making more informed decisions.
But not when the ads are censored.
There are huge economic and political advantages to controlling the online marketplace. But with vast power should come responsibility — the need to be fair, the commitment to listen and respond, the obligation to admit mistakes and fix them.
Yes, these behemoths might need to intervene to block disinformation and scams. But then they’ll also need discernment, which may mean they need to pay human beings to watch the shop - or at least to provide some non-machine-based avenue of final appeal.
If Big Tech companies continue to act like a conscience-less bully syndicate, even the most free market-oriented among us may find we have nowhere to turn other than Washington for a fair shake.