Should free speech be protected on social media?

When the neo-nazi website Daily Stormer was shut down I wrote that GoDaddy had every right to stop hosting the domain of a group that was making the company look bad by association. Legally I still think that’s accurate. The First Amendment protects us from government censorship not the actions of private companies. But there’s an interesting article in the Guardian today which argues the recent urge to run people off social media is making a mockery of the U.S. approach to free speech:

The primary principle at stake – that the US and the internet both remain free speech zones, even for Nazis – has never been more fraught.

“This is a really terrible time to be a free speech advocate,” said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s a ‘First they came for the … situation,” she said, referring to the famous Martin Niemöller poem about the classes of people targeted by Nazis, “only in reverse”…

“Historically, the place you went to exercise your speech rights was the public square. Now the equivalent is Twitter and YouTube and Facebook,” said Daphne Keller of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. “In a practical matter, how much you can speak is not in the hands of the constitution but in the hands of these private companies.”

The piece goes on to argue that the modern day public square has a lot in common with Zuccotti Park, the privately owned park in New York which Occupy Wall Street took over back in 2011. Ultimately, the fact that the park was privately owned meant the owners could change the rules about how the park was used without any public input.

I see the point the author is making but ultimately there is a difference between a physical space and a digital one. When Occupy took over Zuccotti they harmed local businesses and also prevented other people from enjoying the park. Physical spaces are a zero sum game. Neo-nazis or far left groups may do some damage to the “neighborhood” on social media sites, but they don’t take up all the space available to everyone else. It’s possible to simply ignore them in a way it wouldn’t have been possible for someone taking a stroll to ignore the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park in late 2011.

It’s worth pointing out that it really is people on both sides who eventually run afoul of this. In Germany, authorities recently banned a left-wing website popular with Antifa. From the NY Times:

Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister, said that the unrest in Hamburg, during which more than 20,000 police officers were deployed and more than 400 people arrested or detained, had been stirred up on the website and showed the “serious consequences” of left-wing extremism.

“The prelude to the G-20 summit in Hamburg was not the only time that violent actions and attacks on infrastructural facilities were mobilized on linksunten.indymedia,” he said, referring to the website.

The Interior Ministry said the website was the “most influential online platform for vicious left-wing extremists in Germany,” and noted that it had been used for years to spread criminal content and to incite violence.

This is the action of a government, not a private company. Still, it’s not hard to see how a European approach to banning “hate speech” eventually leads to silencing speech on both sides. To be clear, I don’t support the beliefs or visit the websites of either neo-nazis or Antifa, but I believe there is a principle that matters here. Once the speech-banners get a taste of victory with the extreme cases, they could continue to narrow the window of what is acceptable. That seems like a dangerous game to play even if the government isn’t involved meaning it’s not covered by the First Amendment.

I expressed skepticism of the idea of regulating social media companies like a utility, but my hesitation is really contingent on those companies placing a high value on freedom of speech. If we start seeing them become European style censors I might have second thoughts.

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 05, 2022