The European Commission is requesting/requiring Facebook, Twitter, and others to police their networks against undesirable political opinions and bad speech. This is cause for concern on a number of levels.
Facebook’s community standards have long banned certain topics from being discussed – quite notably, anything resembling nudity.
This is an effect of Facebook being a child of the culture it was founded in, the United States of America. If Facebook had been built in Germany, nudity would not have been a problem at all with Facebook, but there would instead be a complete ban on anything even resembling hate speech rallies, which there i
In this, we can observe that all cultures have their taboos and their intolerance of certain subjects. Paul Graham has an excellent essay on the matter called “What you can’t say”.
The first problem with this arrives when one party achieves the right to determine what everybody else is allowed to discuss. Facebook has attained this position. By being the de-facto default discussion forum, it has effectively limited public rights to Freedom of Speech to its own “community standards”.
This is no small nut to crack from a policymaking perspective. Freedom of speech always assumed that people were speaking in the public square, eye to eye. But when that speech on happens somebody else’s servers, we have so far accepted that the property rights of those servers supersede the freedoms of speech.
But what if speech practically only happens on such private platforms? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? What happens when the network effect practically forces you to publish an idea on these private platforms if you hope to reach anyone at all, and those companies have every right to cancel your posting according to their own policies?
We’ve arrived at a completely unanticipated point where Freedom of Speech — in practice, nota bene — has come at odds with property rights. This is a very serious conflict from a liberty perspective, and we’re at a fork in that road. Whatever road is chosen, whether freedom of speech or property rights is given precedence for the future, we’re laying groundwork that will have repercussions for centuries ahead. This is true whether we lay that groundwork through action or inaction.
The second problem with this is therefore that the picture gets much uglier when politicians get involved in this conflict and want to capitalize on it. (This has been sort of a common theme for anything related to the Internet, sadly.)
The European Commission recently recruited Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Google (YouTube) to police their networks to remove speech that the European Commission deems “undesirable”, or violatory of its rather arbitrary “code of conduct”.
Would this have been acceptable if the European Commission – somewhat equivalent of an executive branch – established a Code of Conduct of what may be discussed in the public square? No. No, of course it wouldn’t. Actually, it would be abhorrent.
So we have a problem with private enforcers of limitations to Freedom of Speech, and all of a sudden, political figures interfere. However, they don’t interfere to safeguard Freedom of Speech, but to further reduce it on these private platforms. That’s cause for deep, deep concern.
The situation is not unlike at the late 19th century, when labor movements were struggling to get their ideas out. At that time, newspapers were the medium of choice. However, newspaper printers at the time refused to have anything to do with these unworthy rebels with unsanitary ideas. And who can possible force a printer to take on paying customers they don’t want to do business with?
Nevertheless, the end result was similar. To get around this, the labor activists of the time usually had to enlist newspaper printers in another country and have activists carry them back using whatever means were available.
We all know how that ended: since the ideas were attractive for their time, social democrat parties or labor parties eventually gained a very significant foothold across Europe. The lesson here is that at the end of the day, you can’t really shut out ideas with staying power.
Freedom of speech – and, indeed, privacy – remains your own responsibility.