No, You Don’t Have Free Speech Online

We treat platforms like they are public utilities. They’re not—but maybe they could be.
By Susie Cagle,
(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

The Sunlight Foundation’s “Politwoops” was one of the best things Twitter had going for it. The project scraped and archived Tweets posted by politicians who later deleted them, contending that these messages weren’t just in the public realm but were in the public interest (as statements made by elected officials). Despite running afoul of Twitter’s terms of service, the project ran for years until the social media company finally killed it last week.

Just a few weeks prior, right-wing blogger Chuck Johnson was booted from Twitter after months of sustained threats and harassment. While Johnson cried “free speech!,” Sunlight’s analysis was far more savvy.

“Our shared conversations are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.”

“Twitter’s decision to pull the plug on Politwoops is a reminder of how the Internet isn’t truly a public square,” Sunlight Foundation president Christopher Gates wrote. “Our shared conversations are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.”

Despite the apparent obviousness of this, the “free speech” argument persists. So why won’t this die? Why won’t users on Twitter, Facebook, and other private platforms see that they’re hanging out in a business, not in a public square? Why don’t they want to?

When Facebook, Google, and others claimed to be free speech advocates after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, their motivations were clear: It’s vital to their business models that we feel free, so that we give up as much personal data as possible. The survival of the social Web is predicated on ad sales organized around compiled user information, not on witty commentary. Twitter is an interesting place to talk about the news and receive rape threats between sponsored Gap ads, but it’s also a private place: It is only accountable to us insofar as we are its customers, and it doesn’t want (too many of) us to leave.

It’s vital to their business models that we feel free, so that we give up as much personal data as possible.

Did Twitter ban Chuck Johnson to better protect its other users? Maybe. Did Twitter ban Chuck Johnson because it was better for business than not banning Chuck Johnson? Definitely. When Twitter banned Sunlight’s Politwoops, it was also protecting a portion of its user base—one with more institutional power than Johnson’s victims.

We all seem to want it both ways. On one hand, we expect these walled gardens to protect us from invasive government spy programs, and we’re outraged when they don’t. On another, we expect them to act as a public utility, an arm of government, protecting our constitutional rights. But Twitter can ban whoever it wants. Twitter has no responsibility to free speech.

The libertarian spirit and ideology that founded and fostered the Internet is, in many ways, the same one that gave rise to its rapid commercialization. Private, user-friendly platforms are eating the open Internet—they’ve become synonymous with it, and, in some cases, even transcended it. They can be tremendous tools, but, as long as a bulk of our interpersonal communications are mediated by these businesses, our speech won’t be free. Laws protect platforms’ right to host or not to host our speech, whatever our speech may be. Ultimately, we’ve traded connectivity and convenience for the original populist promise of the Internet.

Now that we’ve entrusted our social contract to Twitter and Facebook, we are left without much recourse. We can complain. We can tell Twitter it is doing the wrong thing. We do this a lot. Maybe it will listen. But ultimately it’ll do the best thing for business. Enforcement in the walled gardens is capricious, but mostly it is capitalist.

Even libertarian Chuck Johnson doesn’t want to accept this. The “free speech” claims persist. And so I’ve started to read them less as a demand, and more as a dream. If Johnson and his supporters want Twitter to uphold “freedom of speech,” they should support turning it into an actual public utility—after all, we’re doing much to subsidize the industry as it is. I’d happily be a member of a nationalized Facebook, even if Chuck Johnson is there too.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.