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The Case for Social Media as a Public Utility

Since the advent of social media, and specifically its rise as the primary means of mass communication, the power of the companies that own the platforms has increased exponentially. Since these companies often set their own rules that they then enforce, anyone can be removed for any reason at any time. One’s presence on social media is a temporary privilege that can be terminated at any time.

In this piece, I want to make the case for social media companies to be regulated in similar ways to telephones. It is true to say that one cannot have one’s access to the telephone cut off if one says something offensive. Whatever one says, access to the medium is not restricted. If the medium is used for illegal activities, the state takes action rather than the private company. When it comes to social media, the state has effectively surrendered its power to enforce the laws.

Corporations with Too Much Power, Part One: Facebook and Twitter

Examples abound of companies such as Facebook and Twitter effectively censoring customers because of something they said. Donald Trump is perhaps the most famous, but look at why Facebook and Twitter banned him. He did not break any laws (enough for charges to be filed anyway), but rather he violated a private company’s terms of service. A private company was able to censor the President of the United States? I hope I am not alone in suggesting that this is way too much power for a private corporation to have.

Please do not take the proceeding paragraph as some sort of defence of the former President. Such is not my purpose. I merely use Mr. Trump, a divisive figure to be sure, to illustrate the point about private corporations having power over speech. One of the arguments you hear is that censorship on social media is not, in American parlance, a First Amendment issue. The chief reason is that the First Amendment restricts the government’s ability to censor speech. It says nothing about corporations’ ability to do so. At the risk of engaging in a slippery slope fallacy, this argument should terrify you.

Corporations with Too Much Power, Part Two: YouTube

YouTube content creators that are considered ‘borderline’, a term best understood as critical of the establishment, are deprioritised. Examples include Secular Talk, Jimmy Dore, David Pakman, and others. These creators are simply not recommended to new potential subscribers. Indeed, when one watches these videos, in the ‘up next’ section of the page, one sees corporate news channels recommended. Such channels also appear on the front page of YouTube as well. Now you might argue that these channels also cover news, but that is little more than an artful dodge. The reason one goes to YouTube is to avoid the propaganda of mainstream media. YouTube as much as admitted that the so-called ‘borderline content’ was being removed from circulation in favour of ‘authoritative sources’, best understood as establishment media sources.

A question for YouTube: would these ‘authoritative sources’ be the same ones who lied the nation into war in Iraq? Would these be the same ‘authoritative sources’ who did Russiagate for five years? These sources are not ‘authoritative’, but rather tow the establishment line, which is seen as more ‘advertiser friendly’, which means YouTube makes more money. It is the money, Lebowski. One could be forgiven for thinking that the point of this deplatforming of channels that tell inconvenient truths was to turn YouTube, formerly under the tagline ‘broadcast yourself’, into Corporatetube.

A Counter-Argument: They are Private Companies

As I hinted at above, censorship on social media platforms is not a free speech issue. Laws protecting free speech say nothing about corporations’ power to limit free speech. Given that these platforms are private companies, one could argue they are within their rights to terminate anyone’s account at any time. Perhaps this is valid, but surely only to a point. Telephones are the ultimate example of the counter-point though. You can call Barack Obama a n*gger over the telephone if you want to and nothing will happen. You can tell sexist jokes and say all manner of ‘offensive’ things over the telephone and nothing will happen to you.

But if you do the same things (or in many cases much more benign stuff) you can find yourself perma-banned from these platforms without right of appeal. What is different? Why are the standards different on social media than on the telephone? As usual, please do not take the criticism of the differing standards as endorsements of the less savoury characters in society, but I want to know. Why is ‘being offensive’ (whatever that means) enough to get what is, in effect, the internet death penalty? The response to objectionable speech is not censorship, but more speech.

Proposed Solution: The First Amendment on Social Media

The solution to this frankly monstrous power in the hands of corporations is to extend First Amendment protections to social media. Short of libel, slander, direct threats of violence and sedition, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. That means that ‘offensive speech’, itself an utterly subjective term, is no longer grounds for censorship. Indeed, there is an American case where the Supreme Court ruled that the content of speech is not grounds for censorship. As I said in the opening paragraph, if the platform is used for illegal activities then the state should act. But I for one see a serious problem with the idea that corporations, not accountable to any laws, have pretty much unfettered control over people’s access to the primary means of communication.

If the decisions to ban or warn people are made by machines (which they must be given the sheer volume of posts), this too poses an issue. Machines, for all their intelligence, cannot ascertain tone, including sarcasm, or context. A youtuber I follow was recently perma-banned from Twitter because he quoted a line from Game of Thrones which says ‘all men must die’. He clearly meant it sarcastically, but a machine cannot tell the difference. It simply saw the words ‘men must die’, interpreted that as a threat of violence and banned him. He had broken no laws, but a private company’s terms of service.

Conclusion: A Cautionary Tale

Social media as a platform run by private enterprise should serve as a cautionary tale. When something becomes essential (itself debatable in this case I admit), it becomes a utility and should be regulated as such. Consider electricity and water. The idea that access to these things can be taken away because of an opinion is laughable. Now is that a perfect analogy? No. One can survive without social media. But communication, for which social media is the primary means, is essential. Free speech protections (with the usual caveats) should be applied to social media. The practicalities of this (since these platforms are used around the world) would be difficult to work out. But the current system of corporations as gatekeepers for what is and is not acceptable speech is not sustainable.

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  1. king1394

    This message has been posted on a group I belong to, the Pensioners, Veterans and seniors Discussion Group. Apparently FB and others didn’t like it.
    False Rating on Content Shared in Pensioners Veterans and Seniors Discussion Group
    A member of Pensioners Veterans and Seniors Discussion Group shared content that’s been rated False by AFP APAC. Learn more about how fact-checking works on Facebook.
    Additional Reporting
    AFP APAC Fact-Check
    Australia’s military bases will retain their existing English names — their Aboriginal names will be added
    Multiple posts have been shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter which claim that Australian Defence Force bases and establishments will be renamed with “Aboriginal place names” and that the Australian flag will be “downgraded” on the agency’s publications. The posts are misleading…
    If a group repeatedly shares false news, Facebook may push all of that group’s content down in News Feed, which may mean fewer people visit the group. Facebook may also stop suggesting that people join the group.To fight false news, Facebook pushes misleading content farther down in News Feed and provides additional articles on the same topic.

  2. Robert Ramsden

    I can see a massive difference between phone calls and social media .A phone call is merely between the sender and the receiver Social Media is potentially between the poster and everyone connected to that social media forum

  3. Kathryn

    The truth is that the muzzling of free speech and silencing of democratic debate has become more and MORE prevalent under the rigid, corrupt mismanagement of the autocratic, dictatorial and undemocratic Morrison regime! It is an extremely worrying realisation because history has shown that it does NOT take much for such abrasive, controlling right-wing-extremism to slip into fascism!

    I know quite a few contributors on Facebook (including myself) who have faced Facebook bans on occasions for minor “infractions” and/or because we chose to speak out – very harshly – against the wanton, depraved and increasing level of corruption, callous inhumanity and obscene arrogance by so many members of Morrison’s cabinet, especially cruel sociopaths like Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, the predators Christopher Porter, Alan Tudge, Barnaby Joyce and Bridget McKenzie – the last two not only NOT facing any consequences for their appalling behaviour but, indeed, being reinstated and PROMOTED within the Morrison cabinet!

    Facebook, I believe, is a good medium which should allow people to vent their rage and disgust against a depraved government that goes on and on doing whatever they like, whenever they like and to whomever they like, without consequence or opposition! It seems that the ALP are just about invisible and lacking the backbone or gravitas to stand up and LOUDLY criticise and condemn the appalling level of corruption and misdemeanours committed by just about every predatory, self-serving member of Morrison’s depraved government.

    HOWEVER, Facebook administrators have the onus and responsibility to NEVER “play God” and attempt to censure, vet, edit or control what people have to say. They must NEVER try to silence democratic debate that may go against their OWN personal political views. Tragically, the censuring and undemocratic deletion of negative comments against this appalling government has been escalating over the last few years and this should NEVER be tolerated! Facebook administrators now use the excuse of “hate speech” to vet, censure and control comments that justifiably condemn a regime that has been allowed to get away with the worst levels of self-serving corruption, lies and deception. It should be remembered that as long as people are SILENCED and/or censured, this level of political deviousness and criminality will not just continue but escalate.

    Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media must NEVER forget that the fathers and/or grandfathers of so many Australians fought in TWO World Wars for the democratic RIGHT of every Australian to speak our mind, say what we want to say and express ourselves WITHOUT fear or censure! Yes, it may offend the sensibilities of some people (especially politicians who do NOT like being challenged in any way), but, hey, the FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION is one of the most basic principles of a democracy!

  4. Jon Chesterson

    This is only a part solution on the issue of free speech, something else then is needed to manage and diminish abuse, bullying, social and political manipulation, harmful offensive and clearly threatening behaviour in this new public domain. Any amendment in my view needs to define free speech and the parameters of free speech versus individual and public or ‘common’ respect and responsibility. Free speech does not entitle someone to destroy another person’s right to free speech (there is a transaction and consequence here) or indeed cause harm to another’s reputation, livelihood or wellbeing; just as liberty and freedom of choice, religion, political persuasion, sexual identity or preference, and movement do not entitle someone to break into another’s home, assault or murder them because they can or it is protected under the first or any amendment. Of course I am not advocating a politicians right here, their reputation usually precedes them and it horrifies me they think they are entitled to sue to hide their sins.

    And just because a social platform is owned and managed by a corporate entity does not absolve it of the responsibility to do no harm. I agree it is a statutory and state matter to handle the fundamental legal and civil rights to free speech, not corporate and that does need address. But we cannot condone the continuation of abuse of power and abuse itself in all its forms social, economic and moral exploitation simply to pander to universal rights on free speech.

    Morality and ethics have shades of grey, both qualitative and quantitative requiring judicious reason, sensibility, weight and context viz Merchant of Venice, George Orwell and Asimov ‘laws of robotics’; more specifically consider Kohlberg on moral development and Gilligan (social context and power inequities). A delicate balance must be struck and it is not for corporations to determine or regulate the formula or mix. That is what responsible government should do, for if they don’t, corporations will do it and there will be serious consequences for society, as we see already emerging.

    Corporate power can never be allowed to be the ultimate arbiter of society, reason, social justice, morality and fair play whether it be on a social platform, in a shop, the office, trade or street, just as church and party musn’t. They may own the equipment and infrastructure but not the content, life and rule of play. Does the government own what you say in public because it was said or proclaimed on a public street, the roads, pathways and infrastructure of public office and government?

    The telephone network is a useful analogy too, but also not perfect, since mostly people are speaking one to one, it is not public; and social media mostly is. But both can be tapped and abused, and therein is another aspect and problem.

  5. wam

    Facebook, Youtube and google are privately owned and, surely, the owners of the company can do what they like, by using whatever legal methods available? Any adverse decisions would come under caveat emptor? They, like murdoch, can be bought but? The need for legislation is overwhelming when computers can be selectively programmed to suit companies and organisations who pay to profile users for political, racial, sexual or religious statements and remove access. Such information can be shared for a price. I believe that telephone conversations are into the public space and, except for a landline, cannot be private. ps The content order given by your search engine is dependent on what payments have been made. It may not be effective but for my own satisfaction I never select any of the first 4

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