Cutting Through the Gordian Knot Pt. I - The Internet and Free Speech
We live in an age where fears of total removal from public platforms is the talk of the town on the internet at large. Terror grips, and rumors have spread far and wide about the establishment’s hold on all major platforms that could lead to a silencing of all those who dare to disagree. “Alex Jones has been de-personed!” echo the cries amid bans from social media and calls of collusion. The hysteria is not without merit; it should come as no surprise that Alex Jones, a man whose worse crimes seem to have been playing a crazed character that claims far-fetched conspiracy theories are true, (for which he is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over, no less) is now no longer anywhere to be found on social media as we know it. What’s more, beyond just services refusing to host him, huge financial corporations such as Visa, MasterCard and now even Paypal, are actively refusing to handle transactions to certain sites or persons including Jones, as well as some of the same services choosing to refuse service to other conservative voices such as Dennis Prager, and David Horowitz.
Calls up and down the aisle have rallied about what can be done as the ideological cleansing of all who are “unclean” have made their way through the progressive “Webisphere”, coupled with the constant decrying of the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Spotify, and other entities which have long since stopped trying to hide the ideological bent to which they are possessed by in the current year. The internet has polarized; people are used as ideological pawns, and are denied their very agency and person-hood. Livelihoods are threatened to ensure that beliefs and doctrines dominate on behalf of public decency and kindness. People are othered, threatened, doxxed, brigaded, trolled, or told to fuck off and sea-lion somewhere else. Humanity has gazed into the mirror and found its reflection so utterly repulsive that they seek to shatter the very looking glass within which they once peered so astutely.
Throughout all of this infighting, cries for a digital bill of rights have been heard among those who call themselves rational; a form of protection that has thus far been ill-defined at best and ill-conceived, in my humble opinion, at worst. As of yet, however, no rational alternatives have been offered that have garnered public purview, so allow me, in a series of articles, to first to outline why the idea of a digital bill of rights is blatantly ridiculous (to be charitable) as well as offer a suggestion I have heard which I think is the best possible method with which to fix the issue we currently face.
First and foremost, allow me to address the issue of free speech, as that principle is one of primacy at the core of this debate, and the one which people seem most happy to compromise upon in order to argue in their own self-interest. Many would agree that free speech is an idea which must be absolutely protected, and I would count myself among them; any infringement or abridgment made upon free speech must be done with the utmost care to respect the rights of those with whom such abridgments will necessarily harm. There is little to be gained and much to be lost while attempting to perform an open-heart surgery with the likes of a legislative sledgehammer, and much of this clamoring for protections seems to be little but exactly that. Too err too heavily on the side of “protection” is to give government the very tools to silence you, and people seem all too willing to simply put that very real threat aside, due to the reality of these corporations doing the exact same thing.
The fundamental quandary regarding these social media platforms is the nature within which they operate; the very method by which they act is to proclaim themselves public domains and forums within which anyone can speak. However, all modern major platforms regularly moderate content and remove things deemed offensive or vile by their users and their staff, which usually includes view-points and statements with which they disagree. One need only look so far as the example of black Conservative commentators Diamond and Silk being banned from Facebook for what was evidently no good reason, or the absolute deletion of the Moderate reformist Muslim Imam Tawhidi’s “Imam of Peace” Facebook page for obvious examples, though I suspect Twitter holds far more bad examples of the practice.
Given that these sites police the content which is posted upon them, they seem capable of arguing that they are open forums while acting as though they are curators or publishers, willing to actively strip the rights of those who disagree with them or those who are deemed “too offensive”. What exactly the criteria for “too offensive” is, however, is not exactly made clear by anyone on Facebook’s staff, but apparently crossing that arbitrary line, at any point, is grounds for page deletion or banning. The same can be said for Twitter. If someone deems that something you’ve said is hate speech, you can be gone in an instant. Interesting then that actual terrorist organizations like Antifa and Hamas are still active on the latter site, with tens of thousands of followers, as of the date of publication of this article. But I digress...
The reason these sites are able to get away with such things is due to the fact that they operate under the loophole of using the excuse of each when questioned with the other; or rather to elaborate: When people ask if these sites are free speech platforms, they agree that they are, while actively curating their content. When people point out that their content is curated, they respond that they’re a platform completely open to the public, but that they have terms and conditions that all users are subject to. Nowhere was this made more evident and plain than by the demands and subsequent approval of the President of the United States’ twitter account being labelled a public forum, which actively forced the President to be unable to block anyone on said account, but following this. Twitter still is able to arbitrarily ban anyone they choose given a sufficient “hate speech” justification. If Donald Trump is not allowed to block someone from contacting him on Twitter, what right then, you might ask, does Twitter have to block someone from contacting him? Wouldn’t they be just as guilty as Trump by violating their first amendment rights to a platform with the president, acting as the official judicial arm of the very body that they are now constitutionally bound to keep open as a means of communication between American citizens and their leader?
These are not questions with easy answers, I’m afraid. Much as I’m sure that bureaucrats residing in the District of Columbia would be happy to nationalize Twitter, it just so happens that Twitter is a private organization. The same could be said of any social media company, and unfortunately for the government, the owners of those organizations all have rights that cannot simply be trampled upon for the sake of expediency. A business has the right to refuse service, so long as that refusal is not due to someone being a member of a protected class, so unfortunately for those who are on the “don’t bake the cake” side of the argument, unless you intend to demand that Political Affiliation becomes a protected class, you don’t have a leg to stand on here. Furthermore, if you do intend to demand that, I ask you how pleased you would be if forced to serve unironic Nazis or Communists at your establishment of choice and that your business had no right to not associate with or serve them. Imagine, if you had such protections, being unable to turn away such people from your forums, your discord servers, your Facebook pages, all due to discrimination. Imagine being forced to suffer these people at your place of employment, as patrons or even employees, on threat of a lawsuit should you fail to comply. Imagine Black or Jewish business owners being sued for discrimination for refusing to offer their services to a Nazi. Imagine businessmen being sued for not hiring Communists. This is the Pandora’s box you would open by protecting political opinions to this degree. It is a foolish proposition, and we all ought to know better than to suggest it.
But if political opinions are not to be made a protected class, what then, can we do?
More thoughts and answers will be available in Part II next week.