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.