When one cannot discern where one ends and the other begins….
Several weeks ago we were presented with the news of Alex Jones being banned from various social media platforms. This raised an interesting question for libertarians: is this a free speech issue or a private property issue?
A free speech issue occurs only when it is government that clamps down on speech. If the speech is occurring on private property, the property owner is free to decide if the speech will be allowed or not. There were many libertarian voices stating that it was a private property issue and that the owners of these various social media platforms had the right to decide who was or wasn’t allowed to speak.
I was asked by one of these libertarians to weigh in on the matter, which I did not do at the time. It is such a “gotcha” issue for a libertarian to weigh in on, and one far more complex than a simple “free speech or private property” discussion. The complexity is introduced by the relationship between the government and these social media platforms – so intertwined that I defy anyone to say where one ends and the other begins – even to include the question of ownership (because ownership is not as simple as “the shares are registered in my name”).
One libertarian who understood that the question was not so simple was Justin Raimondo, who offered his views in a piece entitled “Challenging the Lords of the Internet.” A snippet:
All this wasn’t good enough for Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who demanded to know if the plan was to only take down “one web site.” …a direct threat had been made to these companies by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), who sent out a memo listing all the ways the government could crack down on Big Data if they refuse to go along with cleansing the internet of “divisive” material.
Raimondo goes on to discuss the other unique protections offered by the government to these platforms – protections not available to sites like his own. Protections that are offered to a common carrier, like the phone company, which are not liable for the content that passes over their lines or networks.
These social media internet firms are sheltered from liability regarding the content – just as if they were common carriers. Yet, unlike common carriers, they are allowed to (and now, under threat by the government, required to) censor content. But they are not liable for the content that they censor, nor are they liable for the content that they allow. How is this the free market? Is this typical for private property? Heads I win, tails you lose.
A private company may censor content and also be liable for its decisions. Do these social media platforms really fit the definition of a private company? I would say that Raimondo nailed the point that these companies do not qualify as private property.
Meanwhile, these companies are threatened by the government to censor content that the government wants them to censor – or else. We all know what the “or else” means. Which suggests something about “ownership.” Ownership suggests control, use and disposition. Does Mark Warner’s comment suggest something about the ownership of these carriers?
Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of Facebook, and a major shareholder. His net worth, depending on the day, is north of $70 billion. Several months ago, his company was hit with a privacy scandal. With the subsequent drop in share price, his net worth fell by about $14 billion. He travelled to Capitol Hill for hearings…
…where he apologized for not taking “a broad enough view of our responsibility” and for not doing “enough to prevent [the platform] from being used for harm.”
Subsequently, the share price fully recovered its lost ground. What do you think would have happened to the share price if he told congress what a private owner would tell them: pound sand. Remind me: who owns Facebook?