It is undeniable that banning Donald Trump from Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites is a benefit for the moment. It may well save lives, perhaps lots of lives. But it raises quite a few troubling issues.
First, as EFF points out, these platforms have privileged speakers with power, especially politicians, over regular users. For years now, it has been obvious to everyone that Donald Trump has been violating policies on both platforms, and yet they did little or nothing about it. The result we saw last week was entirely forseeable — and indeed, WAS forseen, including by elements in those companies themselves. (ACLU also raises some good points)
Contrast that with how others get treated. Facebook, two days after the coup attempt, banned Benjamin Wittes, apparently because he mentioned an Atlantic article opposed to nutcase conspiracy theories. The EFF has also documented many more egregious examples: taking down documentation of war crimes, childbirth images, black activists showing the racist messages they received, women discussing online harassment, etc. The list goes on; YouTube, for instance, has often been promoting far-right violent videos while removing peaceful LGBTQ ones.
In short, have we simply achieved legal censorship by outsourcing it to dominant corporations?
It is worth pausing at this point to recognize two important princples:
First, that we do not see it as right to compel speech.
Secondly, that there exist communications channels and other services that nobody is calling on to suspend Donald Trump.
Let’s dive into those a little bit.
There have been no prominent calls for AT&T, Verizon, Gmail, or whomever provides Trump and his campaign with cell phones or email to suspend their service to him. Moreover, the gas stations that fuel his vehicles and the airports that service his plane continue to provide those services, and nobody has seriously questioned that, either. Even his Apple phone that he uses to post to Twitter remains, as far as I know, fully active.
Secondly, imagine you were starting up a small web forum focused on raising tomato plants. It is, and should be, well within your rights to keep tomato-haters out, as well as people that have no interest in tomatoes but would rather talk about rutabagas, politics, or Mars. If you are going to host a forum about tomatoes, you have the right to keep it a forum about tomatoes; you cannot be forced to distribute someone else’s speech. Likewise in traditional media, a newspaper cannot be forced to print every letter to the editor in full.
In law, there is a notion of a common carrier, that provides services to the general public without discrimination. Phone companies and ISPs fall under this.
Facebook, Twitter, and tomato sites don’t. But consider what happens if Facebook bans you. You might be using Facebook-owned Whatsapp to communicate with family and friends, and suddenly find yourself unable to ask someone to pick you up. Or your treasured family photos might be in Facebook-owned Instagram, lost forever. It’s not just Facebook; similar things happen with Google, locking people out of their phones and laptops, their emails, even their photos.
Is it right that Facebook and Google aren’t regulated as common carriers? Perhaps, or perhaps we need some line of demarcation between their speech-to-the-public services (Facebook timeline posts, YouTube) and private communication (Whatsapp, Gmail). It’s a thorny issue; should government be regulating speech instead? That’s also fraught. So is corporate control.
Decentralization Helps Dramatically
With email, you get to pick your email provider (yes, there are two or three big ones, but still plenty of others). Each email provider will have its own set of things it considers acceptable, and its own set of other servers and accounts it’s willing to exchange mail with. (It is extremely common for mail providers to choose not to accept mail from various other mail servers based on ISP, IP address, reputation, and so forth.)
What if we could do something like that for Twitter and Facebook?
Let you join whatever instance you like. Maybe one instance is all about art and they don’t talk about politics. Or another is all about Free Software and they don’t have advertising. And then there are plenty of open instances that accept anything that’s respectful. And, like email, people of one server can interact with those using another just as easily as if they were using the same one.
Well, this isn’t hypothetical; it already exists in the Fediverse. The most common option is Mastodon, and it so happens that a month ago I wrote about its benefits for other reasons, and included some links on getting started.
There is no reason that we must all let our online speech be controlled by companies with a profit motive to keep hate speech on their platforms. There is no reason that we must all have a single set of rules, or accept strong corporate or government control, either. The quality of conversation on Mastodon is far higher than either Twitter or Facebook; decentralization works and it’s here today.