Freedom of Speech & Private Enterprise

Houston, April 11, 2022. This is a response to a dear and sincere friend who believes Twitter, being a private company, has the right to censor whoever it wants based on its own rules; rules which you are “forced” to agree to when you sign up. It is a follow-up to a debate we have been having since I quit Twitter after they banned me for a second time.

The first time based on the simple denunciation by someone who didn’t like what I wrote (although it was factual), and the second time because of a tongue-in-cheek comment which algorithms and bots don’t understand but people do.

Yes, I believe in Freedom of Speech as long as you are not yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre or calling for murder. I also believe I have the right to hurt someone’s feelings, just as they have the right to hurt mine. It is part of freedom of speech, the public arena, and the market place of ideas.

Firstly, I did not break the rules of Twitter. Some Bot decided I did. Algorithms don’t understand humor, inuendo etc. but I still disagree with the rules and question their legality/constitutionality and ethical arguments. There are, and should be, legal and constitutional limits to what those private companies profiting from the public sphere of debate should be allowed to censor or ban. 

This is where I seriously part company with the EU which defines what speech is legal and what is not based on their own ethical standards. For example, it is illegal for a Turk in France to deny the Armenian genocide and, of course, anything questioning the official history of the Shoah. But the list doesn’t stop there and once you open that Pandora’s Box, who knows where the powers-that-be will end it?

Secondly, I believe in the First Amendment and most of the Constitution and just like Standard Oil had to be broken up, so do the monopolies (communications corporations and online platforms) controlling the public sphere of debate. It is how it used to be with the FCC for TV and Radio until Reagan’s capitalist reforms allowed media giants to monopolize a market. They used to be banned from owning competing stations or print radio and TV in the same market. But I would make the rules even stricter and impose balance with oversight.  I would impose “the right to respond” on all matters.

We can liken what the private companies monopolizing the public sphere do to Mining town owners forcing the miners to shop in their shops at the prices they imposed and live in their houses at the rents they imposed.

So, what private companies are allowed to do or not do, we will disagree on. Yet, you agree the government should intervene when private companies practice racial, age, sex, etc. discrimination. I find this a contradiction on your part.

More Debate, Not Less

But I am convinced the best way to fight fake news and disinformation is through subsidizing independent local medias. Local media is what made American democracy so vibrant and it is why it is so hard to see fake news affect the Germans, for example, the way it affects Americans. People don’t know what is really happening hundreds of miles away but they sure do know what is happening in their backyard. Where you have (subsidized) local news outlets, fake news and disinformation have trouble spreading: Sweden, Austria, Holland …

This said, it does not stop people from being racist, or neo-Nazi, or populist, or anti-immigrant, or fundamentalist etc.  But that too is a freedom which needs to be protected as much as it needs to be countered in the public arena by those who disagree.

Adam Smith, himself, warned, in The Wealth of Nations, (1) of the dangers of unrestricted, laissez-faire, capitalism and argued that the authorities representing the interests of the public need to reign capitalism in.  Of course, we saw that UK capitalists in the 19th Century chose to ignore that part of the book. (2)

As far as the Constitution is concerned, you know I am in favor of doing away with our outdated text and form a parliamentary democracy, thus putting an end to the presidential regime which has taken on much too much power to wage war, impose restrictions on the public, etc.

Democracy is an exercise in compromise and parliamentary democracy with proportional representation imposes this.  Macron has used France’s strong Gaullist presidential regime to pass very repressive and liberty killing legislation which will be very hard to undo.

1. As we will see, none of these were Smith’s chief concern. His chief concern, rather, was that extreme economic inequality distorts our sympathies, leading us to admire and emulate the very rich and to neglect and even scorn the poor, which in turn serves to undermine both morality and happiness. (see link below)

2. For more on extreme inequality of wealth in the 19th Century see Thomas Piketty, Capitalism and Ideology.