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Freedom of Speech, and Big Tech

Freedom of Speech, and Big Tech

May 7, 2020 · C.E. Carter

From the vantage point of the Constitution, freedom of speech is possible due to the existence of a “polis”. A polis must have the quality of being public, “owned” by the people as a collective whole, so that no one may be censored from entering the polis by means of “trespassing”. A shop owner has the right to kick me out of his shop if I opine in a way that does not please him. It is his shop, and he can choose to allow the presence of whomever he pleases, and he would have the same right to do so in his own home, his yard, his garage, or any other space which he owns.

If, however, the shopkeep and I have the same disagreement in a public park, or on the sidewalk, it would be an infringement of my constitutional right to freedom of speech for him to call in the authorities to have me removed from the polis. My rights protect me from their action at all.

What remains a Constitutional gray-area is the new space of social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, etc. are places where social discourse can take place, but they are not areas which are protected by the Constitutional right to freedom of speech. They are interactions which happen on someone else’s server, the cyber equivalent to someone else’s yard or shop, and thus no matter how benevolent their user policy is, your speech on these platforms is not protected by your Constitutional rights.

So far there exists no cyber equivalent of a “polis”. I find the censorship that happens on YouTube and Google and Facebook to be despicable, but entirely expected given their obvious political stances. We can be assured that a solution to freedom of speech online will not come from Big Tech, but neither will it come from any government organization for the same reasons. Perhaps, new developments using blockchain or some other decentralized form of information verification will make an online polis possible, or perhaps it’s simply not possible without actual face-to-face interaction.