There Are No Lines
“Freedom of speech” is such a limited thing as to be almost worthless. Every line of communication between you and the general public, and most lines of communication between you and your close friends, are mediated by a third party. If you post on Twitter you’re subject to Twitter censorship — if you make an independent website you can get deranked by Google. If you spread your website via word of mouth it’s still subject to Cloudfare’s approval, and even if you host independently CenturyLink can deny your servers. You can have videos pulled off the air, books taken off shelves — the only form of “speech” not mediated by a third party is to print pamphlets and stand on the street corner trying to hand them out to people. This may have been influential in 1780, but it’s a joke in 2021.
Tech companies are doing an interesting thing — they are (ostensibly) acting on the behalf of American political systems, censoring and moderating content that may be detrimental to the democracy. This is framed as “social responsibility”, and the implication is that the company is at least partially responsible for the impact of content hosted on their platform. This responsibility is mostly only brought up w.r.t. American elections or (more recently) public health. This is popular alongside the contradictory idea that social media platforms are explicitly not responsible for hosted content, as in Section 230. This section exists to detach internet companies from the consequences of user content they host in a legal sense.
What we have right now is a big tangle of competing legal and moral philosophies that tries to protect everyone from liability and give them freedom to follow their own ethics. In practice this means the government recuses itself from the conversation (except to enforce bullshit copyright laws) and there is a power vacuum, which tech companies step in to fill. Every website becomes a fiefdom, subject to the laws of the host company. Individual citizens are not actually afforded freedom of speech, legislation and enforcement of speech boundaries is just handed over to private companies — unless you want to go back to shouting on the street corner. I will not waste anyone’s time making an argument for the necessity of being online in modern society.
How interesting, then, that Facebook should be enforcing censorship about American elections (the slant of the censorship doesn’t matter — that the company has taken a stand at all shows they are biased and involved). The American government gets to promise its citizens free speech, while still enjoying the benefits of censoring the public square in its favor. If this sounds like a reach to you, try replacing “America” with “Russia” and see how the scenario scans to you then. If this were happening in Russia, we would expect to find corruption — bribes between tech oligarchs and government officials, or maybe close family relations. But in America, the situation is slightly different. Much of the pressure for pro-government censorship comes directly from the American people themselves.
I don’t believe Americans come up with their own opinions very frequently — the propaganda machine we live in is too strong. I lose count of how many times I’ll be in conversation with someone, bring up a hot button issue and hear their vocal patterns suddenly shift. They say words they didn’t come up with. Maybe they long for consensus, maybe they are just uncritical of the information they consume, I don’t know. The point is, there are always messaging directors behind every major political push, and in this case they are prominent. Members of Congress have called for tech censorship on elections consistently for years. This messaging is amplified by the tech companies themselves, as well as by news media and prominent influencers — who are prominent thanks to their presence on social media sites. It turns out the Russian hypothetical is more sophisticated than we need — in America, politicians can simply ask for favors from private companies in public.
It’s not a position that tech companies need much convincing on, I feel. Aside from the fact that they host this position uncritically, and enable the prominent social media figures who inhabit their sites, tech companies have a close and amiable working relationship with the American government in general. Tax laws are favorable to them, immigration laws are changed to suit their hiring needs, and every state and local gov will fawn over the nearest tech center. You might think Zuckerberg’s hearings in front of Congress would be evidence of some friction on that point, but I don’t think so. Zuck went to Congress with the goal of paving the way for harsher legislation that would make it impossible for new social media companies to grow — trying to close the door behind him. The circus he went through with Congress might have looked oppositional, but it was all in pursuit of mutually beneficial goals.
With tech companies serving as an ally of the government, it raises the question of where exactly the boundary line is. The internet is the largest public space thousands of times over, and the only one that really matters. This paralegal censorship of the net is good evidence that the Constitution is truly outdated — it is not written in terms that can grapple with present day realities, and it breaks down. It’s like trying to use Newtonian physics near the speed of light. If you want to keep arguing for the value of “freedom of speech”, you must first divorce it from the U.S. Constitution.