The Problem of Censorship

February 18th, 2019

It is a moot point wether or not Facebook, Twitter or Google are engaged in censorship when they remove content from their platforms, as this discussion is mainly about semantics. While it is true that private companies have the legal right to decide on their own editorial policies it becomes problematic when those private companies hold an incredibly large sway over society. As of early 2019 Facebook has over 2.3 billion active monthly users. There is nary a working journalist or politician without a Twitter account. Their policies on what information to promote or disallow has a profound effect on societies across the globe.

As Thomas Macaulay wrote of British Parliament in 1828,

The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm. The publication of the debates, a practice which seemed to the most liberal statesmen of the old school full of danger to the great safeguards of public liberty, is now regarded by many persons as a safeguard tantamount, and more than tantamount, to all the rest together.

Representative democracies rely on the relationship between journalism and government. The problem we are facing is that our contemporary means of publishing information to the voting public is primarily through privately controlled and for-profit corporations.

This is hardly the fault of Facebook or Twitter. While disruption is and was a key part of the Silicon Valley ethos, these companies did not actively set out to disrupt the foundations of our societies. They cater to different audiences, from snowboarding enthusiasts to daycare centers, many of whom do not engage in any sort of political discourse. The needs of these non-political consumers are being met by the tech titans and admirably so.

One approach is to use government to regulate companies like Facebook and Twitter, that is, to use force to coerce them into allowing any and all types of content on their platforms. Not only is it a dangerous precedent to use public institutions to regulate the speech of private entities, it will most likely destroy these businesses entirely. Hasbro does not want to pay for advertisements displayed next to a treatise on white nationalism. Twitter, if used as a forum for discussing professional sports and video games, is not in danger of disrupting the foundational elements of our society.

What we need instead is a public platform that caters to the fourth estate, one that is accountable and transparent, and one that is not distorted by the machinations of a business model based on marketing and advertising. The first component of such a platform is a public system of identity authentication as described in The Tyranny of the Anonymous. The second component is a storage and distribution network, much like the how postal service functions today.

Like the public postal service, with room for a public as well as a private option for competing couriers in FedEx and UPS, a public option for digital many-to-many communication can live comfortably next to private options like Facebook and Twitter.

Since its inception the Constitution of the United States has granted Congress the power "to establish Post Offices and post Roads," or broadly speaking, to establish a publicly funded system for the storage and distribution of information.

This public social media service opens up a whole new realm of solutions to issues with content restrictions and censorship. Government content ratings agencies establishing rules over what kind of sexual or violent content can be shown over the public airwaves have always suffered from the technical limitations of broadcast television and radio. With a digital public platform we could allow for people to freely choose amongst competing private content ratings agencies and to set their own personal limits on content.

For example, an orthodox religious group could maintain a content ratings policies inline with their doctrines and encourage their members to incorporate these restrictions into their televisions, smartphones and personal computers. At the same time another adventurous soul could decide to use no content restrictions whatsoever. A truly liberal society also caters to its conservative members.