The move to censor media whether it be comic books, literature, movies, music or video games has been something in the mind of the state for almost as long as there has been one. In today’s arena, it comes in the form of social media censorship. Many are clamoring that social media censorship is a freedom of speech issue, and they’re right, but not in the way they think. There are a few important things to consider here.
When It Is Not About Freedom Of Speech
This past Monday the news broke that the infamous Alex Jones had been effectively muzzled. Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Spotify, and Pinterest had all removed massive amounts of content from him. Facebook removed 4 of his pages, Apple removed five of his six podcasts, and YouTube removed the official Alex Jones channel as well.
Now the initial reaction to this news might be that it’s a violation of freedom of speech. You would be right…if these platforms weren’t private. Freedom of speech as a concept is that a person should be able to speak freely without fear of censorship or retaliation. In that sense, it could be said that his freedom of speech was indeed violated. The flip side to this is freedom of association.
While a person should be free to speak their mind, that doesn’t mean that others have to associate with them just because it’s their freedom. If you own a publically accessible business such as a storefront or restaurant. Now a customer comes in a starts loudly screaming that your business sucks, that other customers are going to burn in hell for existing, and threatening to send them there himself. I doubt you would leave them to their devices in your business. It’s your private property and you are within your rights to remove him, even though he might view it as censorship of his speech.
Social media is privately owned, and by extension, their platforms are private property. They have terms of service that include what are and are not ban-worthy offenses. Facebook is a publically accessible storefront. Alex Jones was the customer. Unlike several times in the past, the various social media giants were very clear in their reasoning. Alex Jones went on one of his famous rants and spoke of transgender people going to hell, and how he and those like him were going to bring the fire to send them there. This speech was a clear violation of the TOS agreement he would have accepted, and something that the TOS on nearly every platform states.
When It Might Be Censorship
Just a day after the multiplatform removal of the bulk of Jones’ content from the social media giants Twitter made news for the suspension of two prominent libertarian figures. Scott Horton of the Scott Horton Show and editorial director of antiwar.com, and the director of the Ron Paul Institute Daniel McAdams. Horton was suspended for “inappropriate language” used against journalist Jonathan Katz. McAdams was suspended merely for retweeting Horton’s tweet wherein he chimed in on Katz commentary regarding an interview with Peter Van Buren. Peter received a full suspension of his account as well.
The language used was not outside of the realm of what you would find in a regular response to a Trump tweet, yet the algorithm targeted these three specifically without real transparency on what took place or what term was specifically violated. This came only a few days after controversial conservative pundit Candice Owens was suspended from Twitter for emulating another’s tweet. Sarah Jeong had made a long series of tweets attacking people who were either white or male or both. Owens took one of those tweets and replaced “white” with “black” and “man” with “woman” to highlight the double standard of allowing such speech against one group but not another. She was suspended almost immediately by the algorithm while the tweets from the NY Times Editor at Large remain on the platform.
Another recent example would be Tommy Robinson and his account being deleted from Instagram. Tommy Robinson is best known for his continuous coverage of Islam in England, and his nationalist stances. As controversial of a figure as Jones (minus the trademark crazy), Robinson has faced a lot of censorship attempts and has even gone to jail for his speech due to the difference in laws in the UK. After the large public outcry from the right Instagram reinstated his account and claimed that it was deleted in error.
In these cases wherein the subjects seemingly suffered censor while others were spared for the same actions the question of freedom of speech vs freedom of association becomes blurrier. At the end of the day the platform still belongs to the companies and as such, they hold the right to remove users as they see fit. On the flip side of that removing people because of some kind of enforcement of a narrative definitely spits in the face of open dialogue and speech. It’s at points such as these that the users can enable their own freedom of association and walk away from these giants, perhaps to alternatives such as MeWe, or Steemit.
When It Is Both
On top of all of these questions about what is and isn’t free speech issues on private platforms, there is an actual case for concern we could shortly face. At the end of last month, news broke of a document leaking from the Democrats suggesting massive reforms, regulations, and government control of the internet and social media.
Similar to the GRPD and the failed Article 13 that the EU has this suggested legislation was written by Senator Mark Warner and is meant to serve as a counter for “Russian Trolls” and the like invoking fears that the elections were meddled with. The leaked memo would grant the government the ability to label certain technology such as Google maps “essential facilities” which in turn grants the government even more control over their use and maintenance. In addition, it calls for bots to be labeled, account creation to require authentication and identity verification, and forced location tagging. The scariest part of the document includes forcing companies of certain undefined size to turn all recorded information over to independent researchers and amending the Communications Decency Act to allow companies to be penalized if they do not remove content (currently undefined) as users requests.
For example of that last one, in particular, let’s say that it goes through. Let’s say you decided to get involved in some form of online debate. During the debate, things get heated and you end up directly insulting them. Under this amendment to Section 230 of the CDA, if the other user demanded that your statement is deleted from the platform for defamation the platform would be expected to oblige or, depending on how far this particular item goes, they could face large penalties for failing to oblige. The result? Government legislature leads directly to your censorship.
This is a real example of impediments to freedom of speech. This is the government preemptively applying censorship laws to the internet at large along with taking their invasions of privacy even further. Should such legislation go through it would allow for unprecedented levels of government control of speech online, as well as heavy additional regulations on the businesses that provide the platforms.
With all of these moves happening practically within the same week it’s important that we as citizens, both of our countries and the internet, stay vigilant. Understanding first what is and isn’t a rights issue is important, but once it’s clear we need to be ready to fight for our rights to ensure we keep our freedoms. We also need to remember the importance of the voice of the customer when it comes to dealing with the businesses that make up our social media. Just because it’s not a rights issue doesn’t mean you need to be silent, or else the companies may lose more customers than just those they removed.
Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.