Saturday, September 15, 2018

Dealing With the Spaces In Between

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?

Many people without much wealth will say: oh, he can say or do anything he wants, he is so wealthy.  Try again.  If you were worth $70 billion, how would you act in that hearing?  What would you do, at the request of Sen. Mark Warner, in order to maintain your standing in life?

Then remind me: who owns Facebook?  And I haven’t even said anything about the sources of startup funding, the complete interconnectedness between these platforms and the NSA & DHS.  And remind me again: who owns Facebook?  Are you sure it is private property in any libertarian-meaningful sense?

So why do I bring this up today?

On the censorship of Michael Hoffman’s books by Amazon, by The Saker.  Mr. Hoffman has written some naughty books – at least naughty in Amazon’s eyes.  Now, these weren’t naughty a few days or weeks ago – only recently were his books banned from the site.  The title of the books will offer a clue as to the thought-crimes of Mr. Hoffman:

Specifically, the ban is on three of his books. A complete ban (Kindle + printed book) on Judaism’s Strange Gods: Revised and Expanded, as well as The Great Holocaust Trial: Revised and Expanded, while his textbook, Judaism Discovered, has been removed from the Kindle.

I haven’t read his books, so can’t really say anything in detail of what is contained.  You can tell by the title that he raises questions about topics (maybe the topic) on which we are not allowed to raise questions.

Hoffman describes the early days of PayPal (which also banned his site) and Amazon: libertarian operations, allowing all content to pass. 

As long as PayPal was owned by libertarians, all was well and we had a high customer satisfaction rating for our integrity and dependability. … [Amazon] was very much a libertarian book operation from the start. From 1994 until a year or two ago, Amazon only refused to sell hard core pornography and books that constituted direct appeals to violence or law-breaking, which is how it should be.

Not anymore, not once size and scale caught notice of the state and net worth was at stake.  By the way: Jeff Bezos’ net worth hovers around $150 billion.  Do you think he bought the Washington Post because he thought the paper could make a profit?  Or is it possible he bought the Washington Post on orders to keep it afloat…or else?

Ownership: control, use, and disposition.  Who owns Amazon?  Yes, I know the same questions can be asked of all entities.  But tell me about another industry where the “private companies” within it both offer a platform that threatens state power and whose entire existence is dependent on state power to this degree. 

There is no bigger threat to state power than that of the people sharing ideas freely.  The internet opened that door.  A handful of companies are the gatekeepers of that door.  Those same companies don’t get to sneeze without government approval, and if government does not approve then Bezos and Zuckerberg will see their net worth drop to about the same as yours and mine.

Who owns Facebook?  Who owns Amazon?  Do you think the government allows the nominal owners control that would threaten the government?

Sure, some libertarians will say, so start your own platform and allow whatever content you want.  Yes, I know this is possible.  I will ask my libertarian brethren to look back on those long ago days…pre-internet.  Remember how libertarians would “start their own platforms” in an attempt to break the hold of the government regulated media.

The Libertarian Forum, the Rothbard-Rockwell Report.  I am the first to say thank you for working tirelessly to keep the flame alive, to reach the Remnant.  Each with a circulation of, what?  Twenty-five people?  One hundred?  Compared to the reach of alternative thought today, it is not even measurable.

There is no bigger threat to state power than that of the people sharing ideas freely.  The internet opened that door.   Do you really think that the companies that make this possible are allowed to act “private” by the government?  It isn’t as simple as saying “these are private companies; they are free to do what they want with their property.”

The government controls these companies, just as certain as the government controls national parks and aircraft carriers.  “Own” is irrelevant without control.  You may “own” your car.  But if I can drive it whenever I want, and any objection by you allows me to not only transfer title but also take your house and your bank accounts…tell me: do you own your car?

Yes.  The government can do this to any one of us.  But none of us “own” the technology that allows people to share ideas freely.

So, where is The Saker on all this?

What is attacked is not a person or even a group, but ideas, arguably the most precious attribute of mankind. This is therefore not only an attack on a human being, but an attack on the very notion of humanity as such

And it is even worse: There is no bigger threat to state power than that of the people sharing ideas freely. 

The ultimate hypocrisy lies in the fact that most so-called libertarians (from the Left to the Right) have nothing to say about this because this is not a case of censorship by government but the action of a corporation which has the “right” to do as it wishes…

But is it private property or is it property controlled by the government?

…nevermind that the result is still a clear de-facto infringement of Hoffman’s First Amendment rights…

Nope.  Unless one concludes that it is property controlled by the government – not really too big a leap.


I am not calling for government action to regulate these companies.  How about calling for government action to de-regulate these companies?  How about, as suggested by the Raimondo piece, government action to force the issue: are these firms common carriers or are they responsible for their content?

If they are common carriers, they can be sued for not allowing all content.  If they are responsible for their content, then their protection against being sued for their content must be removed.  In the meantime, it seems they are protected either way.

The benefits of private property without the risks.  Does this sound like “private property” in any libertarian-meaningful definition of the term?

Or, do they model the firm in the perfectly libertarian society: they don’t have to allow all content and they cannot be held liable for their decisions in this regard?  Then how about being held liable for allowing government and others access to all of my life?  Don’t hold your breath.

Or do I gain liberty by never going online and not carrying a phone and not using a credit card and hiding my face in public?  After all, I have nothing to worry about if I don’t do anything wrong.

You can’t have it both ways.  Only those who want to take your liberty away are allowed to have it both ways.  And I wouldn’t call the result “private property.”


Is the goal liberty or private property?  Even (or especially) if you grant that Facebook and Amazon are private property in a libertarian-meaningful sense (I do not), these two just may not be the same.


  1. Is there, can there be such an animal as a corporation in the Libertarian universe/multiverse?

    1. In terms of an entity attempting to limit personal liability? I am not sure. It seems to me that it could exist between the transacting parties, but not third parties.

      For example, you might agree to not hold me personally liable for tree trimming - when I crash the large oak onto you home.

      But I had no such deal with your neighbor.

    2. Insurance could provide limited liability in a libertarian world.

    3. I don't see why not. If workers agree to work for and investors agree to invest in a company that will not be liable for wages and bond repayment should the company fail, that is on them. I suppose it will depend on the level of competition between corporations or the supply and demand regarding corporations, investors, and laborers as to which party makes out better in the negotiations.

      For instance, if there are many more laborers in proportion to corporations, then the corps will probably get the sweeter deal, and vice versa.

    4. Limited liability extends beyond contractual agreements in our non-libertarian world. You can buy stock in, say, a chemical company which later has a spill that wipes out an entire town, and only lose your initial investment (that really happened). In a libertarian world, the investors would be liable for the damages should the company be unable to pay them.

      To be properly protected in a libertarian world, investors would need to enlist some third party to cover damages of that nature. That third party would, I assume, do its own research on the company to determine the risks of a payout.

    5. JB: "That third party would, I assume, do its own research on the company to determine the risks of a payout."

      Well, there is quite some moral hazard in this approach: Very rare payout will open the door to underpricing in order to make a quick buck.

      I.e. it is assumed that the company will make an evaluation in the sense: over time X add up (chance of pay out * amount of payout) and divide this by the time interval => payment + some percentage profit.

      (that is hard to write, I hope you get my intention here)

      The time X is the big problem. Ideally X should be the life time of the plant. Assume that lifetime is... say 100 years. Also assume that the CEO of the insurer plans to stick around for 10 years.

      See where I am going?... what number is that CEO going to use? His 10 years of service (maybe add another 10 for plausible deniability) or the 100 years?

      Makes a heck of a lot of difference to the bottom line. And the CEO's performance bonus.

      (Of course I am completely ignoring the actual incalculability of the proper numbers. Insuring a car against theft or accident is easy. Insuring a one-of factory against one-of disasters is impossible)

    6. Are we redefining corporation?

      BM is correct in that the issue is liability and a customer does not care about how an entity divvies up the profits among the owners. When an issues arises dealing with liability, where the money comes from to pay for the penalty, again, is not the customer's concern.

      Looks like an old issue stick up its ugly head again - government by insurance? But insurance also has to deal with its own liability coverage., since to be insurance an entity will have to agree to whatever the insurance entity's requirement are.

      And, still, recovery of a liability claim is an issue between the customer and the provider.

      In the end, there is no government establishing that the corporate veil can only be pierced in extreme rare occasion. I know, I lost two relatives in the DuPont Plaza fire and the union could not be touched, the corporations, they got lanced.

    7. Ultimately, I don't think we can say if a corporation of limited liability would exist in a world absent government enforcing the limited liability.

      I hate to say "the market will sort this out," but I do believe the market will sort this out. Insurance products will be developed (including re-insurance), and these will either develop a track record of effectiveness or they won't.

      If an effective track record is developed, the idea of a limited liability corporation could continue; if not developed, then it won't.

    8. Rien: "Well, there is quite some moral hazard in this approach: Very rare payout will open the door to underpricing in order to make a quick buck."

      I would think the hazard would be more than a moral one once the owners and injured parties discovered the fraud.

    9. JB: "I would think the hazard would be more than a moral one once the owners and injured parties discovered the fraud."

      Sure, but will that deter potential criminals? History suggests not.

  2. BM: "When one cannot discern where one ends and the other begins…."

    That line is probably the best comment on this issue I have come across on lib sites/forums. (The argument has been present on many, but nobody came up with a one liner telling it all)

    1. Thank you. I wrote that line last, because it came to me after I wrote the post. After I worked through the post, it struck me that this is what I was after.

  3. I think you have made the best argument I have heard for regulating Social Media companies to enforce all speech. It comes down to the fact that fascism is alive and well in the US. It makes pretty much any corporation of sufficient size an arm (or leg) of the state.

    But as a libertarian this feels too close to participating in the centralization of more power to the state. The only good answer is to de-monopolize the industry. That means less regulation and finding ways to make these corporations suffer consequences for demonstrating bias. The only way I know that to happen is market competition and the people affected negatively by that bias being quick to switch loyalty to different social media platforms. There has to be a path to viability for alternatives to Facebook and Youtube. If not, I don't see any way of fighting off bias except by calcifying the fascist relationship between large corporation and government.

    1. Did I make an argument to regulate all speech? It's funny that I offered the opposite in my conclusion.

    2. When I wrote "enforce all speech", I meant requiring Social Media to remove bias. I think it was an awkward way of saying forcing those companies to allow all speech, no censoring.

  4. I work in the Retirement Department at corporate headquarters of a major southeast Michigan healthcare organization. I have zero patient contact.

    I do not trust flu shots. I must submit to annual flu shots nonetheless. My employer will fire me if I don't.

    Healthcare is a quasi-government industry. Licensing, mandates, regulations, patents, and all kinds of controls beset it. The flu shot requirement stems from the Social Security Administration's insistence healthcare providers protect its "investment" in Medicare.

    As a libertarian, I understand private employers have a right to set the terms and conditions of employment. But the flu shot requirement is the SSA's doing.

  5. Where is Hank Rearden when you need him?

    1. Hank Rearden would have never been anywhere near the social media industry. Francisco d'Anconia is the guy you could hope would save the day.

  6. "A private company may censor content and also be liable for its decisions."

    In a way these companies, even though they are owned and controlled by DC to some extent, are being held liable. They are being exposed for having a leftist bias and are being judged in the court of consumer opinion. Of course, consumer opinion is mostly leftist to some degree, so the punishment, if you could call it that, is pretty inconsequential. Those of us who do disagree probably aren't going to boycott Google or Amazon anytime soon (Facebook is easy for me. I left it a long time ago).

    And this bias, as the recently leaked video at Breitbart has shown with Google, is not always something state imposed, but is rather something felt or held personally by the ownership, upper management and probably most of the other employees.

    I think a big part of the problem is the leftist take-over of the major universities and mainstream media. The state doesn't have to force people to protect it, if they are indoctrinated since infancy to love and depend on it.

    "Remind me: who owns Facebook?"

    The hearing on capitol hill was a bit strange and telling in this regard. It's clear that these companies are not just private entities.

    1. ATL: "In a way these companies, even though they are owned and controlled by DC to some extent, are being held liable. They are being exposed for having a leftist bias and are being judged in the court of consumer opinion."

      Ah, but then you are assuming that there is independence (of the public). Which I would argue does not exist.

    2. ATL: A second -and possibly more damning- assumption is that people will act rationally. I find this to be another great failing in libertarians, libertarians themselves are very rational. To the point of being autistic. (Ask me!, I was) However realism and rationalism used to be traits of people with center and right wing political preferences. Left wing is ideological and wholly unreachable by ratio. (And today's conservatives are left of of the democrats in the '50s)

    3. The only assumption about human action in libertarian economy is that humans make choices they believe will fulfill desires. It doesn't assume that their perception is correct. But it enobles that action by granting sovereignty to the individual.

    4. Rien,

      Well, we are all capable of independence, at least of mind, but the forces working against that are massive. Still consumers can punish producers for glaringly obvious mistakes.

      Everyone acts rationally in the sense that everyone has a reason for what they do or say, but this does not mean that these reasons are well thought-out or in any way helpful towards achieving one's ends.

  7. " There is no bigger threat to state power than that of the people sharing ideas freely. The internet opened that door. ". I would quibble with this only to point out that biggest threat to state power has always been rebellion rather than the circulation of ideas. Trumps election WAS a rebellion against state power which the political ruling class immediately moved to crush first and foremost with its judiciary vis a vis the Stalinesque Russiagate show trial, second by way of MSM agitprop and third by coming after independent media.

    1. Victor, my comment might also be a quibble - maybe we are in a chicken-and-egg thing - but here goes:

      Trump doesn't happen without Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Ron Paul doesn't happen without the internet - people sharing ideas freely.

      Revolutions are formed when enough people see that enough other people hold similar views - at least similar regarding what they are against, not necessarily similar regarding what they are for.

      No one fights for the revolution of those who fit in a phone booth. This is just suicide.

    2. I don't believe this is a chicken or egg thing at all. Rebellion is born of acting individuals, and they act on their ideas. I find arguments to the contrary completely ridiculous.

      Although, this ideas rule the world concept is, to me, so obvious that i may simply be blind to some larger point of argument in opposition.

    3. BM: "Trump doesn't happen without Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012."

      I dunno, I have a nagging suspicion that things like RP or even Trump are in fact no more but the rationalised surface of the collective unconsciousness.

      My question is: can we derive the true mechanism by looking at the surface?

    4. Patrick,

      I hear you. Ideas are, without question, the drivers of human history, but how are they 'weaponized?' What does it take to make an idea a reality? Therein lies the real art and science of revolution.

      Is aggression the most effective method of spreading ideas? Can an idea which denies aggression in both means and ends find the motive force to compete with those who happily embrace it? I would answer "no" and "yes," but only time will tell.

  8. I would argue that the boundary, if any, should be the point where the comments start. If the comments are open to the public, then they have crossed the boundary, and have forfeited their claim to private property.

    By that definition, Facebook and Twitter, which are both basically open forums, do not have censorship rights, even if requested by the government or any of their corrupt agencies. This even includes if they require anyone that comments to first register with their site.

    If there is no method for infusing reader comments into the article's thread, then there is an understanding of private property.

    At least, that's the opinion I have.