Speaking of Freedom

To be clear at the outset: I am not a free speech absolutist, by which I mean that I do not believe that freedom of speech is more valuable than any other principle. In particular I am not American, I feel no obligation towards the First Amendment of the American Constitution, and I do not believe that Americans have any right to oblige anybody outside of the jurisdiction of the American Constitution to observe or adopt the First Amendment.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t value freedom of speech: I do. Freedom of speech has two legs: it is instrumental, a means to an end rather than an end in itself; and it is inclusive, it applies equally to everybody who must contribute to building. I value freedom of speech not because it’s a wonderful principle, but because it’s a practical tool in building a society; and the people in that society are the reason the principle has any value.

The most common argument against censorship is a reciprocity argument: you should support freedom of speech for those whose opinions you disagree with, because you should want those who disagree with you to support your own freedom of speech. This is a reasonable point, but it’s a heuristic for decision-making rather than a law of nature. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that if you disagree with somebody because they don’t support your freedom of speech – perhaps they argue that you aren’t a fellow citizen, or even a human being – then you have no obligation to support their freedom of speech.

This is of course the Paradox of Tolerance formulated by Karl Popper, which the far right is well aware of; but for them it’s an opportunity which they have seized with both hands, weaponising “free speech” as a means of entering political discourse. For them that politics is not a “marketplace of ideas”, but a war which they mean to win, and “free speech” is simply one of the weapons in that war. They’ll use it as a defensive shield as long as it works, and then discard it if it doesn’t work or if they no longer need it – that is, if they have lost, or won. It is vital that more people realise that this is how our opponents see things, otherwise defeat is highly likely.

If they win then many of the rest of us will definitely be excluded and probably be eliminated. This is their stated aim; this what they’ve always done; this is what they will try and do again. If that happens, the free speech absolutists will at best be stuck in a corner, complaining that the far right is not playing fair. And they’re not, they’re definitely not playing fair – but they played by the rules that you laid down until they won the game, and now they get to change the rules, because that’s what power means, and that means freedom of speech is about power.

In this light, the argument that you shouldn’t allow censorship of opinions you don’t like if you aren’t prepared to accept censorship of your own opinions lands slightly differently. I am not in favour of censorship of “opinions I don’t like”; I am in favour of censorship of people who want to see me expelled from the country (at best) and at the bottom of a mass grave (at worst). Those who make this argument frequently believe that good ideas somehow drive out bad in the fictional marketplace of ideas without ever clarifying exactly how this process is supposed to work. They are frankly naive about power.

The question of power is obvious in the removal of Trump from social media, and the subsequent removal of the Parler service from the major platforms. The technology giants banning Trump – presumably on a temporary basis, although that remains to be seen – are not exerting a power that they never had before. They are revealing the power that they already and always had; they are showing us that these are not our tools, and that the idea that they were our tools was only ever their marketing, not their truth. If you think these platforms are publishers, then what they are doing looks like censorship. They are not, and so it is not – not quite. So what are they, and what are they doing?

Social media platforms are networks, and what they are doing is controlling access to those networks in order to prevent the coordination of violent action. This is clear from Amazon’s statement in the court case brought against it by Parler, which is worth quoting at length:

“This case is not about suppressing speech or stifling viewpoints. It is not about a conspiracy to restrain trade. Instead, this case is about Parler’s demonstrated unwillingness and inability to remove from the servers of Amazon Web Services (“AWS”) content that threatens the public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens. There is no legal basis in AWS’s customer agreements or otherwise to compel AWS to host content of this nature. AWS notified Parler repeatedly that its content violated the parties’ agreement, requested removal, and reviewed Parler’s plan to address the problem, only to determine that Parler was both unwilling and unable to do so. AWS suspended Parler’s account as a last resort to prevent further access to such content, including plans for violence to disrupt the impending Presidential transition.” [emphasis mine]

If you buy the line that Parler, like all right wing extremists, are using – and I don’t know why you would – and you don’t care about the actual content, then Amazon’s withdrawal of service might look like censorship. It is not. It is a new type of action from a new type of actor, an action that we should be worried about – the power that the platforms hold should concern us – but discussions of it under the rubric of “censorship” limit our ability both to understand it and to respond to it.

This is particularly critical when we discuss functional monopolies such as Facebook and Twitter. If Facebook bans a particular media outlet, that media outlet can still publish on its own terms, so clearly it’s not “censorship” as usually defined. What’s being done by the platform is limiting access to a network, orthogonal to traditional media, which provides additional capability in asymmetric warfare; low cost, easily accessible, difficult to counter. (None of what I write here is original.)

This is not obvious if you mainly use them for sharing inspirational videos about rescued animals; but as the asymmetric war has spread more widely, and become more vicious, it is increasingly clear to most people what the real power of these networks is, and always was. Trump didn’t want access to Twitter to speak to the nation – he can call a press conference any time for that – but to mobilise his supporters as a force in his favour in an asymmetric war against institutions.

The responsibilities of the platforms providing those networks are correspondingly different than traditional media as a result. They understand their role in asymmetric warfare very well indeed, but that it’s only at this point – when that warfare comes to their doorstep, rather than in the Arab Spring, or Myanmar, or anywhere else – that they take action. Unfortunately this comes late in the game, and because those platforms have been first recalcitrant and then inconsistent in their responses, and their marketing defends their interests rather than the public interest, it leaves everybody confused as to how to respond.

Once you realise that this is war – that it’s seen as war by many of the people who are using Parler, and encouraged as war by some of the bad actors on all these sites – this becomes a much less confusing matter. Those of us who have been deeply concerned about the impact of these platforms since their inception have generally been ignored (at best), especially when we point out how bad actors actually understand how to leverage these networks in their favour. 

This is not a freedom of speech issue. This is an asymmetric conflict in which “freedom of speech” is one of the weapons that is being used against us. Until we collectively recognise that – and act on it – the forces of agnōsis will keep winning. In this case I believe the platforms have made the right decision, but they remain pernicious in ways which we cannot easily see and will only become clear to most of us with hindsight. We need a different language to discuss what these platforms do and how we deal with them, and a different set of tools to navigate and mitigate the power of these networks.

The platforms have too much power, and we need to reclaim it for people; but at the same time we must not be naive about the war that is being fought across their networks.

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