Substack Has the Right Anti-Censorship Philosophy, But Do They Have the Right Technology?

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

On January 26, The Center for Countering Digital Hate garnered a few legacy media headlines when it reported that Substack generates at least $2.5 million dollars per year by enabling the likes of Alex Berenson and Joseph Mercola to publish and distribute “anti-vaccine” newsletters. Berenson and Mercola, who both “monetize” their “dangerous lies,” take home 90% of that $2.5 million, while Substack keeps 10% as a fee for the use of its platform.

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Now the CCDH is calling on Substack to ban Berenson, Mercola, and others like them from the self-service newsletter platform for commercial purposes altogether.

Speaking with The Washington Post, CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed challenged Substack to demonetize misinformation, saying, “Substack should immediately stop profiting from medical misinformation that can seriously harm readers.”

And then separately, with The Guardian, Ahmed expanded on his view, stating that Substack is under “No obligation” to amplify vaccine skepticism, and that “This isn’t about freedom; this is about profiting from lies.”

So how did Substack respond? By publishing this blog post on their own website: “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.”

Ding Ding Ding! Correct.

In that blog post, Substack co-founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj Sethi reaffirm that, even though the pressure to censor their platform is mounting, they will not relent, “We make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.”

At a time when so many technology platforms and media outlets grovel, pander, and buckle under even the slightest bit of pressure from the intolerant establishment, how refreshing to see Substack and its founders continue to stand their ground.

But that might not be enough.

Substack’s philosophy, and their dedication to upholding it, could be bulletproof, and yet the walls might still come tumbling down at a moment’s notice if the underlying technology that powers the platform is not similarly resilient to the machinations of the left and their censorship hawks.

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Late last year The Federalist reported that most of Substack’s data was hosted with Amazon Web Services, and a quick scan of substack.com with BuiltWith, a technology lookup tool, appears to confirm that Substack is indeed relying upon Amazon’s Cloud Platform as a Service product, in conjunction with Cloudflare.

When the mob figures out that Substack itself is unwilling to be bullied, how long before they take their demands for censorship directly to Amazon? And what environmental factors might actually entice Amazon to consider intervening, requiring that Substack no longer permit COVID-19 and vaccine “misinformation”?

Hopefully, we never learn the answers to those questions. 

But in truth, we may only be another new variant away from finding out.

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