For years, the big social media platforms have used their market dominance to decide who could speak and on what terms: they forced drag queens and trans people to use their "real" names; kicked Black Lives Matter activists off their platforms; and allowed autocratic rulers to force opposition activists to expose themselves to arrest and torture as a condition of using their platforms.
At the same time the decades-long conservative ideological attacks on antitrust law and regulation (which kicked off with Reagan and were accelerated by his successors) have allowed the platforms to grow to dominate our online spaces, so that exile from their environs means all but disappearing from the public discourse.
Meanwhile, the anti-state ideology of the right means that there are no "public spaces" on the internet: in the real world, the fact that you can't protest on the private property of a mall is mitigated by the fact that you can protest on the public sidewalk in front of it. But the right has created a digital world where all spaces are private, and the owners of private spaces have the absolute right to set policy in those spaces.
Enter the American Conservative. Peter Van Buren, a right wing former US State Department official, writes in the American Conservative that the increasingly organized left has figured out how to use the lack of public online spaces, and the strong property rights regimes in the concentrated private spaces, to get right of right-wing speech, which is, you know, actually true, and he says that this is alarming because when a handful of capricious, high-handed, unaccountable, profit-driven corporations control our speech, that is bad for a free society, which is also true.
But then he goes off the rails. He says that:
Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, best expressed as "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it." This ethos was core to our democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw their ideas into the marketplace, where an informed people push bad ideas away with good ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.
This is radioactively untrue.
America is a country where union organizers would be kidnapped by mobs hired by the town's richest citizens, beaten, covered in molten tar, dipped in feathers, and dumped at the city limits. It's a country where white sheriffs, with the support of wealthy white townsfolk, sicced attack-dogs on peaceful black protesters. It's a country where the Klan operated with impunity, routinely murdering and mutilating black people who voiced even the most timid and innocuous professions of equality. It's a country where registering black people to vote could lead to your secret execution, with the killers going free.
It's a country where business owners used their right to police speech on private spaces to fire workers who were trade unionists, or communists — even after laws were passed banning this practice, they kept doing it.
It's a country where unarmed protesters were met with tanks, teargas and militarized police.
And the thing is, that's all terrible. America has never been a nation where people may disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it. Old chestnuts like, "Well, of course you can't shout fire in a crowded theater" come from court-cases where people were imprisoned for speaking out against a war.
America is a place where people holding establishment-friendly views that did not threaten the super-rich would fight to the death to defend the free speech of other people who held establishment-friendly views, even if they disagreed about the particulars. It was also a place where those people would find common cause in firing, arresting, beating, and murdering people holding views that threatened the status quo and the power of white supremacy and financial dominance.
That's terrible. America would be a better country if we had a marketplace of ideas, rather than a cash-money marketplace where the more power you wielded, the more your ideas could be heard.
The American Conservative, Van Buren, and American conservatives more generally are awakening to the problems of a fully privatized speech regime where there is no First Amendment; they're waking up to the problems of market concentration; they're waking up to the problems of corporations acting in the interests of their shareholders without any consideration for how that action plays out in the wider world.
People on the left are understandably relieved that Alex Jones has lost much of his ability to torment innocent people with disgusting lies that sell bogus vitamin supplements. But they're letting that glee blind them to something that the right — ironically — is more and more aware of: that letting corporations get as large as they want, allowing them to operate in service of profit above the public good, and having no publicly owned alternative to concentrated commercial giants is terrible, and it bodes very badly for anyone with unpopular political beliefs and not much political power.
It was a fluke that Jones was booted from Big Tech. He stepped over the line again and again, until it was inevitable. But the far-right media that's one tiny hair less terrible than Jones will ride the line, never crossing it, magnifying their power and influence.
Meanwhile, poor and marginalized people, who lack the resources of the astroturf groups that front for billionaires, will be increasingly targeted by the platforms' willingness to police speech, and when they get knocked off, they will find themselves with nowhere else to go.
Of course, values shift, and what seems good to block today might change tomorrow. But the biggest issue is that companies exist to make money. You can't count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means it will inevitably quash ideas when they conflict with profits. Those who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the First Amendment and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.
Google (until May) had a slogan commanding its employees: "don't be evil." Yet in China, Google is deploying Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing's demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course, in China they don't call it hate speech; they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn't from Russian bots but from respected global media. Meanwhile, Apple removes apps from its store at the command of the Chinese government in return for market access. Amazon, which agreed to pull hateful merchandise from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed that it is "unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world" in using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with a future loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?
Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one's business elsewhere. In 2018, the platforms in question are near-global monopolies. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post and can influence elections, is just another company that sells things, is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Censored on Twitter? Try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance have changed the nature of censorship so that free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won't post that person's videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate. In 1776, you went to the town square; in 2018, it's Twitter.
I Was Banned for Life From Twitter [Peter Van Buren/The American Conservative]