Censorship is on the rise. The dream of an open, horizontal, internet where anyone can freely participate and communicate with all, is turning into a hierarchical internet where public spaces have been privatized into the hands of few tech giants.
The president of the United States, and many other presidents, including kings and queens, now speak to the public more on Twitter than on TV.
Reddit has become the greatest coffee house at a global scale where all sorts meet to discuss all sorts of things, from science to art, coffee making, code breaking, even the movements of stars.
Facebook connects all with long lost relationships re-ignited. Google provides anyone access to the greatest library that has ever existed.
These were the dreams and they are here, with many working to build these products, fiercely competing in the early 90s and 2000s, with the ones mentioned rising as the winners.
The problem is the centralized design allows the owners of these platforms to have an immense influence even on who is elected as president.
If there was a scientific discussion today over whether the moon revolves around the sun or the sun around the moon, what the owners of Facebook, Google, Reddit, Twitter, think would matter considerably.
Not decisively, especially if the matter in question is so big that it rises to the level of a national debate. In more obscure matters, however, it might even matter decisively.
We’ll focus on Reddit because the effects of censorship on that platform can be shown most clearly and because Reddit has a policy which is effectively against free speech.
The Media Giant Defacing the First Amendment
Condé Nast Inc. is an American mass media company founded in 1909. They own numerous media entities, including Wired, Vogue, The New Yorker, and Reddit.
Their policy is to allow the moderators of a subreddit to do effectively whatever they want in that sub with the users of that sub having no say whatever.
The design is effectively dictatorial. The incentives thus are considerable to take over a sub for profit or to push a political agenda.
Usually this begins slowly and subtly, with the insidiousness of the hidden censorship not very apparent to a casual observer who doesn’t know he/she is being manipulated.
At some point, it becomes obvious. Like when r/politics became effectively r/hillary during the 2016 election. Conde Nast did nothing even though that’s manipulation, obvious to anyone paying attention, but perhaps not so obvious to a casual.
The effect of that is, according to a highly voted redditor, that: “/r/politics is breeding a new generation of rhetoric. They’ve normalized calling dissidents and people offering varying opinions off the narrative as Nazi’s, white supremacists, white nationalists, dangerous, bots, trolls and the list goes on.”
This is dangerous, perhaps to the point of existential for a democracy. Not because they’re necessarily wrong in saying whatever they say, but because they can’t be challenged if they are wrong.
That is, one can’t have open debate, and without open debate, there is no democracy. Here we’re not referring to anything controversial, such as cultural war matters, but to “plain” politics which in right-leaning direction can’t be discussed in r/politics, a sub so named to specifically suggest it is for right-left debate.
The examples of censorship are far too many. In r/ethereum, for example, a thread has been locked after a mod was called out for allegedly promoting a perceived competing project.
One can’t see who took this action within Reddit. Was it the mod in question? Someone else from that competing project who might be a mod? Or was it Vitalik Buterin, Chief Scientist at the Ethereum Foundation?
Obviously it is quite unlikely that Buterin would take such action, but he is top mod, he could take such action in other circumstances. Shouldn’t such information be revealed by the Reddit platform? Shouldn’t the platform itself show when something has been censored?
There’s of course the example of r/bitcoin where an important technical matter was decided to a great extent by censoring one side of the debate.
Then r/worldnews has recently appeared to reveal itself as biased in favor of only giant media companies, with new media seemingly censored.
Again who took that action is not known, but Maxwellhill is mod of both r/worldnews and r/politics. He is also one of the earliest user of Reddit at a time when “posting new links was such an important task, Huffman and Ohanian created ‘tons’ of fake users they’d use to submit links.”
Maxwellhill appears to be a pseudonym. Might he be a Conde Nast employee rather than just some random user who spends all day on Reddit so many years on? How can we know.
More insidiously, might any of the mods be working for the Chinese government, perhaps Iranian government, or maybe for Apple in r/technology, and so on.
We’re not saying that’s the case, but it could be the case. That’s in fact why free speech is a fundamental and uncompromisable principle save for extreme exceptions like personal threats.
It’s because we don’t know what the motives of someone are that we focus on the content, but if you can’t challenge the content, then there’s cheating, and if cheating is going on, then shouldn’t the law put a stop to it?
Private Public Spaces
When censorship was instituted in r/bitcoin, probably the first time it happened on social media at that scale now circa 5 years ago, an astonishing argument was made by Theymos, the mysterious top mod of r/bitcoin.
He said that the sub was private property, that he had the right to do in his private property anything he wishes.
Technically, r/bitcoin is the private property of Conde Nast, but does this “property” have such a significant public quality that as a matter of equity is quite different from say a paid subscription website or a physical office where the public is denied entrance?
Reddit is the public. Without the public there is no Reddit. It would instead be something like these pages, with content produced by employees rather than the general public.
As it stands, content on Reddit is primarily, if not solely, produced by the public and the aim of Reddit and the reason it exists is to provide a space where the public shares information or engages in debate.
The comparison the r/bitcoin moderator made was a shopping centre, where the public can move freely, but the owner of the shopping centre can ask anyone to leave.
That’s a flawed comparison because Reddit would better be compared to an open flat land that was then gradually built to a nice shopping centre by the general public which now rightly thinks it has some say on how matters run in this shopping centre that they built.
Without the public, there is no Reddit. That’s why the Reddit founders made fake accounts and comments to make it appear there is a general public here and thus you too should come and hang around and make comments and build Reddit.
While the public was building Reddit, Conde Nast – which bought it very early on in 2006 – gave the appearance through comments by the co-founders that Reddit would be a censorship free open space where all can engage.
Now that Reddit is built, they’re telling us this is their property and they can do what they want. Now that the platform has become so big and essential in many ways, they’re telling us they can censor and that Reddit is effectively a dictatorship.
Time For an Internet Free Speech Law
As a social species, we collectively organize and coordinate through a complex system called government through which such matters as what is right and what is wrong are decided.
Through this method, we collectively have the authority to compel entities or individuals to do or not do something.
We have compelled the American government, for example, through the constitution, to guarantee the right to free speech.
Some argue that only applies to the government itself and as far as government institutions are concerned, that the constitution compels the government to not prevent free speech, rather than to guarantee it.
Yet collectively we can end that debate by unambiguously extending the right of free speech to public open digital spaces like Reddit or Twitter.
In addition, there should be criminal law that applies to any admin or moderator who changes someone else’s comment save for removing such comment.
That’s because Reddit’s founder has previously changed someone else’s comment, although in gist. One can imagine however that this could potentially be abused to effectively frame someone.
The idea is that social media owners, including Google, are fiduciaries managing public spaces through a position of trust. Thus they must have certain obligations that certainly include free speech, but go beyond.
Google, for example, makes billions in profits primarily from content generated by others. There’s a law in process by the European Commission to compel Google to share some of its profits with sites that actually generate the content, with the matter now under debate.
That recognizes that these aggregating platforms that organize user generated content are of a different nature from previous entities or businesses.
So one can say these are private platforms all they want. The question is, should they be, and if so, or in any event, should there be certain obligations.
Considering these platforms are incredibly important for public debate and thus for our democracy, considering the content is primarily if not solely created by users, considering the immense influence censorship has already had on some important matters, and considering free speech is under threat as shown by its metaphoric burning by a Berkley protestor (pictured), it is clearly time for we, the people, to compel by the force of law the upholding of fine principles hard won by our ancestors.
It is time for a free speech law. Not just an executive order for universities, but time to enshrine a general principle that free speech applies to all public spaces save for the usual exceptions.
Otherwise this generation may well be witnessing the greatest theft for we built these platforms and we are still building them. They’re our platforms, similar to how under law you receive part of the house proportional to your contribution to the mortgage.
So here too we have rights to perhaps even part ownership of these companies, but at the very least the right to free speech.
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