"I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express." (xkcd)
This is all true!
However, I think we need to be aware of corporate power in the modern age.
Mega internet corporations are achieving government-like power. Facebook often knows more about your personal life than the government, and Google has amazing power of censorship. If Google deletes something from its search results, it no longer exists. Also think about how in the Arab Spring, the internet was shut down in entire countries with a master switch, and Twitter was blocked in some countries. China censored news of the Arab Spring and blocked search terms related to it. Think about Livejournal in Russia, where the Russian government put pressure on LJ to remove the accounts of people who spoke against the government. This was INDIRECT government censorship, the government trying to force a corporation to censor people for them instead of doing it themselves. When Livejournal refused, the Russian government launched a series of DDoS attacks on LJ, causing the downtime and slowness that made a lot of fandom move to Tumblr.
I am not talking about like, “that one forum kicked you off because you were a tool.” I’m talking about groups of people being denied access to blogging sites like Twitter and LJ specifically because they’re using them politically, or politically volatile populations being denied internet access wholesale. This IS a free speech issue. Corporate platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have become the town square, they have become public spaces rather than private, corporate ones, yet they’re still being run by private organization rules, which gives those corporations unprecedented power that are laws are designed to prevent our governments from having because these are powers that no one should have, but we couldn’t imagine anyone but government achieving it when we made the laws.
We’re living in a society where MONEY is considered “speech,” but access to the platforms that allow others to hear you is not necessarily speech. Corporations have all the liberties of private citizens and then some, the power of a government, and the accountability of air. Not only does this mean that “free speech” can be manipulated for profit, but that governments can get away with censoring if they do it through a corporation rather than directly.
If someone allows private property to be used by the public, that still means it’s private property.
We’re living in a society where it’s not just “private property is used by the public” but “the public is being funneled through private institutions in order to function.” This is the case with, for example, all healthcare being privatized, prisons being privatized, public schools being replaced by private charter schools, and agriculture increasingly being consolidated to cement our reliance on one or two big corporations. What I’m talking about is not merely corporations but corporate monopolies. Monopolies are very profitable, and can become dangerous and even abusive because they force everyone to depend on them, and they stifle any innovation that could theoretically challenge their monopoly, such as Bell suppressing the invention of the tape recorder in the 1930s, and keeping answering machines off phones until the 80s even though we’d had the technology for decades. Because monopolies have such a high potential for abuse of power, they have historically been ILLEGAL, with the government forcibly weakening several and breaking them up. Monopolies end the competition that is beneficial to capitalism and create a culture of dependence and stagnation. However, that influence on the tech industry was weakened when Microsoft more or less won United States vs Microsoft in 2001, an anti-trust suit accusing Microsoft of spreading its influence too wide and forcing a monopoly. Since then, tech companies have pretty much done whatever they wanted, and we’ve forgotten that monopolies are supposed to be illegal.
While we might not be completely there yet, certain communications platforms are becoming monopolies of communication. If removing access to Twitter can stifle a revolution, then you have to think about the kind of power access to Twitter has, and what Twitter even is. A monopoly on communication can easily become a monopoly on speech itself.
The government historically has, and should, regulated corporate power and monopolies. This is not “private property” in the sense that stuff you own is private property, unless you really do believe that corporations are people. I know we’re encouraged to over-identify with corporations and think of them as just like us, only bigger, but they’re not. They don’t work like us, they don’t own property like us, and they aren’t regulated like us.
In the information age, there was a power void, a new kind of need that people had that had not yet been filled by anyone. Initially it was run by a network of individual private citizens with the backing of the government and institutions like universities, with a few small companies like Prodigy. A lot of those powers have been pushed aside, and corporate monopolies are filling the gap. With the recent fall of net neutrality, they’re getting quite the chokehold. ISPs (which are often major cable companies, which in some cases are owned by giants like Rupert Murdoch, who has a definite political agenda) can now legally discriminate in how they deliver content—if they want to slow down certain kinds of content that they don’t like or that competes with them, or charge you extra to access it, or even block it entirely. They could end the open web and only sell packages to access a few main websites: Facebook, Instragram, whatever’s in your entertainment pack—or just make the open web prohibitively priced, remember, it’s now a matter of legal precedent that money is speech in America!
And you can argue, all your data is going over this infrastructure that’s privately owned, they don’t HAVE to carry your data. If you start saying things someone in the government doesn’t like, and the NSA makes a phone call to your ISP telling them to shut your service off, that’s not reaaaally censorship because you didn’t go to prison, and besides the ISP is a private company, they can deny you access to their shit for any reason, including reasons like the NSA threatening them, that’s totally legit.
The right to internet access is increasingly being seen as a human right because it has become so fundamental to human communication. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_Internet_access While that doesn’t include the right to be an asshole on every forum, it does, for example, include the right to organize protests over Twitter, even if your government is telling Twitter to delete your account.
Basically, yes, censorship CAN take the form of large, monopolistic corporations refusing to carry your message when they are a platform for carrying people’s messages. That doesn’t mean every stupid asshole on the internet whining Deviantart took their porn down is right, but the argument that corporate monopolies don’t have to worry about free speech because that’s only for governments is deeply worrying. If they have the power to commit censorship then it’s a concern regardless of who they are, and if private organizations can do things the government isn’t allowed to do, the government will merely assume those powers through them, as seen with how the military gets around its limitations by hiring private contractors (mercenaries) and waging shadow wars with the CIA instead of the proper military in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Saying “It’s only a violation of people’s rights if these specific people do it” just makes those specific people see how they can get someone else to do it for them at their behest.
A convenience is not a human right by virtue of getting addicted to it. Again…
Also people will always game/buy systems. Can’t change human nature.