Private is not the same as public.
That sounds pretty obvious. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes people conflate the public and the private, and wind up feeling entitled to public rights and benefits from private entities.
Take Twitter, for example.
Twitter is not public. Twitter is run by a private, for-profit company. Twitter is not bound by the First Amendment in the United States, or by any similar provision governing government censorship in other nations. I can imagine a world in which Twitter has extended a contractual promise of free speech to you that is similar to the First Amendment, but they haven't. At most, Twitter has basked in the glow of being widely seen as a place for free speech — a belief not supported by law or by evidence.
Would it be swell if Twitter dedicated itself to a corporate culture of freedom of expression? It sure would. But you'd still be a fool to confuse it with a public entity bound by a constitutional guarantee enforceable in court. Put not your trust in princes or in corporate messaging, in which there is no salvation from censorship.
So: criticism of Twitter over censorship should be the criticism of a consumer that is dissatisfied with a product, not the dissatisfaction of a citizen dissatisfied with his or her government.
Why do I care? I care because legal distinctions between public and private matter. They are fundamental to our grasp of the nature of freedom of expression. When we conflate — and encourage others to conflate — public and private, we contribute to the degradation of our fellow citizens' grasp of free speech, which cannot help but erode it. That's why we talk incessantly here about fundamental free speech fallacies — like the fallacy that private actors are bound by "free speech values" to promote speech they don't like, or the fallacy that criticism is censorship. When we promote some fallacies about free speech — the particular ones we like — we weaken society's understanding of free speech as a whole, and open the door to any number of other unpleasant fallacies — like "I have the right not to be offended" or "online criticism is unprotected bullying."
So, though I am happy to see widespread condemnation of Twitter today for its suspension of the account of journalist Guy Adams, I'd love to see the criticism grounded in consumer dissatisfaction with Twitter, which by its actions is showing that it offers an unsuitable and inferior product. Mr. Adams tweeted criticism of NBC coverage of the Olympics and tweeted the email address of an NBC executive — an email address that anyone with access to Google could suss out for themselves. There are indications that Twitter acted like a fawning lackey to NBC by not merely suspending Adams, but by running to NBC to report him in the first instance.
It's easy to forget that Twitter is private because it's become such a behemoth and because it's become such a primary information source and venue for communication for so many. But it is private. It's a for-profit business, and it's going to act like a for-profit business, and it's irresponsible to trust it to act like something else. Criticizing it as if it were a public entity is an attempt to shift responsibility. It's our responsibility to choose, and police, our private communications platforms. If Twitter acts like this, and won't repent, then if we care we have to be prepared to dump it for something else — or to find some way to inflict consequences on it so it won't act that way again. Protip: tweeting about it very likely promotes Twitter even if the content of your Tweets is critical. It's like organizing a everybody-jog-five-miles-in-Nike-shoes to protest Nike.
Moreover, we can't let our obligations as consumers divert us from our duties as citizens. Twitter, a private entity, suspending Guy Adams is the sign of a shitty product; the United Kingdom continuing to arrest people for trash-talk and hyperbole on Twitter is frightening and unprincipled government censorship. We can dump Twitter; that's quick and easy. Policing our governments is a full-time job.
Nothing I've said should be taken as suggesting that it's wrong to criticize Twitter. It's not. But it should be the criticism of a consumer against an upjumped widget-maker, not the criticism of a citizen of his or her government. Twitter has become a very popular widget among revolutionaries. Someone should probably tell them that if this is the way Twitter acts, they may be using a dangerous product that will get them killed.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Easing Back In, With Ponies - June 18th, 2013
- Prenda Law: The Sound of One Shoe Dropping - May 20th, 2013
- This Is The Most Wonderful Legal Threat EVER - May 17th, 2013
- OMICS Publishing Group Makes A Billion Dollar Threat - May 15th, 2013
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