One of the most interesting facets of the freedom of speech debate is the fact there is almost no argument as to whether a limit to this freedom should exist. It’s purely a matter of where the line sits and who draws it.
One of the immutable cornerstones of our democracy is the belief in freedom of expression, yet even the most liberal of democracies have fairly uncontroversial legal limitations on it in practice. An obvious and universally supported example is the publication of child exploitation material. Not just images or footage of actual abuse, but fiction or drawings depicting abuse is broadly outlawed in most jurisdictions.
However, it should be recognised that the reason behind the prohibition of this material isn’t necessarily to protect us from being offended by the content, but is intended more so to prevent the material possibly inspiring other depraved individuals to carry out similar abuse in the real world.
This links closely to the other legally prohibited expression, that being anything which could be reasonably expected to incite another to commit a crime. The logic behind this is fairly obvious, though it does lead to a level of subjectivity around just how far you have to lead someone down the criminal garden path before you’re legally culpable for their actions.
Beyond these examples, and a few additional court mandated suppressions (a topic for another article), the government is generally – and rightfully – reluctant to criminalise anything we say or publish.
Yet, despite these very minor and easily avoidable legal restrictions on our expression, we find the topic of ‘censorship’ consistently atop the list of societal concerns. So, if not the government, who is it that is imposing these restrictions on us?
One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the fingers pointing furiously at the motley crew of “Big Tech” multinationals responsible for provoking this modern-day freedom crusade.
The act of banning President Trump from Twitter, while he was still the President of the United States, is heralded by some as a horrifying act of politically motivated censorship by a private company, and whether or not you agree with Trump being banned (I certainly haven’t missed him), they might actually have a point.
Twitter, in particular, has developed a reputation recently for imposing its own moral standards as a rule for what it will and will not allow to be published on its website. Almost all accounts promoting QAnon conspiracy theories have been removed and well-known commentators like Jordan Peterson have found themselves suspended for making statements around gender that would have been deemed entirely uncontroversial less than a decade ago.
Twitter has, it seems, drawn a line between what can and can’t be published on its website and it unashamedly bends and winds that line to their political and ideological whims. This is a fact few would debate. The pertinent question is does this matter? Should we care?
The obvious bias that must be assessed from this writer with a progressive lean is how would I feel if Facebook and Twitter were instead refusing to platform the views I wanted propagated? Would my take on the societal impact of corporate censorship be different if Twitter deleted Barack Obama’s tweets and promoted the views of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon?
It’s hard to imagine I’d passively accept these massive broadcasters providing international reach to millions with ideas I feared were dangerous. Let’s be honest, I’d consider it a direct threat to our society if ideologies I genuinely thought were damaging had the tacit support of some of the most influential corporations that ever existed – especially if at the same time any attempts to argue against these ideologies on these platforms was actively restricted.
So, in a sense, I actually get where these people are coming from when they decry “big tech” censorship; we are placing a lot of trust in corporate boards to decide what content is in society’s best interests.
The question we are then left with then is, what should we do about this?
Is it ethical, or even feasible, for a government to force Facebook and Twitter to publish the views of users against their will? Are there any other plausible scenarios where a similar compulsion would occur? Should Sky News be compelled to have me on their After Dark TV panel? Should InnovationAus be forced to provide a platform to Flat Earthers?
If you or I were to establish our own social media platform today, should we be compelled to host customers we do not want? Especially if we feel they are damaging our product?
The counter argument is that Facebook and Twitter are clearly not like any other publisher, and this is a truth that brings us to the crux of the issue.
For any other media outlet, be it a news website or TV station, the failure to provide a balanced coverage, the perception of bias, or a reputation for censorship, could mean that customers would simply choose another product. But with Facebook or Twitter, there really isn’t anything that comes close to a viable competitor.
The issue isn’t that Facebook and Twitter are censoring views they disagree with, every publisher does this. The issue is that Facebook and Twitter have a monopoly that has afforded them a level of unprecedented media power.
The danger to society does not lie in the conduct of these corporations, it’s the fact their unilateral conduct can have such a dramatic impact on our societal discourse in the first place.
This week, the Senate Economics References Committee established an inquiry into the influence of the “Big Five” Tech companies. Censorship has not been listed as a one of the core topics it intends to cover, but the manner in which these companies exercise arbitrary censorship policies must be examined within the context of their impervious market monopoly. It is only when these two elements are combined that they become problematic.
Monopolies are never in the public interest, and no one should have a monopoly on dictating the public interest. There is a long list of economic, ethical, and societal reasons why the monopolies held by major tech companies needs to be urgently addressed; the issue of corporate censorship should rightly be at the forefront of this discussion.
What an Australian Government can do to fracture what is a truly global monopoly remains to be seen, it has so far proven itself fairly impotent in its ability to intimidate any of the multinational technology companies.
But it is important this issue is not portrayed as a uniquely conservative concern. Freedom of thought and the ability to challenge ideas are the traditional values of liberal ideology; and we should defend those values while our voices can be heard. We should not wait until fate chooses our values are the ones deemed too dangerous to be published.
Carrick Ryan is the nom de plume for a former counter-terrorism officer at the Australian Federal Police and current fraud investigator at a Big Four bank. You can follow Carrick on Facebook here and on Twitter here.
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