xkcd 1357 presents a cogent, yet naively simplistic and ultimately one-sided view of free speech. Indeed, things go awry in the very first frame, in which it is claimed that free speech amounts to no more than one’s ability to speak without fear of arrest by the government. However, many people, myself included, would contend that the right to free speech is a philosophical concept that far transcends this narrow American legal definition.
The waters suddenly become much murkier when one examines the fact that large corporations with (socio-)political agendas have, in recent years, become more powerful and influential than even national governments and heads of state. This is an alarming and undesirable development, since said corporations are not subject to any third-party oversight or regulation, and there is no independent process of appeal against their summary judgements or the imposition of punitive measures.
This grave situation has steadily worsened over the last decade as the reach of these companies has expanded and gone largely unchecked by governments who either cannot see the danger rising before them, or find themselves without any existing legal recourse to combat it. The unfettered growth of this influence has emboldened these corporations to reach increasingly harsh and arbitrary judgements against selected users, whilst making proportionately diminishing efforts to justify their actions.
In many cases, governments have been not merely ineffective at curtailing this rise in influence, but instrumental in it, by misguidedly conferring on these corporations an editorial responsibility for the utterings of their users that no mere carrier or publisher should either want or be forced to bear. Historically, we have not demanded of the postal service that it take responsibility for the missives it conveys, nor of telecommunications carriers that they intervene if controversial and challenging ideas are sent over their cables and airwaves. Corporations like #Facebook and #Twitter are essentially no different, and should enjoy and be bounded by the same status, because to confer more is to endow them with a power that they can abuse, have abused, and will continue to abuse.
The rise of these corporations’ influence has seen the town square, where we are free to gather and engage in public debate, controversial or otherwise, slowly undergo a paradigm shift from the physical world to the virtual realm; the crucial and essential difference being that access to the virtual town square is not without encumberment. It is not a public forum, and access to it is granted, tolerated and revoked at the pleasure of said corporations.
This grim development has been further catalysed by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, in many parts of the world, has resulted in the actual revocation of the right to public assembly in a physical space. In much of the world, including the so-called free world, the actual town square no longer exists as a hub for the free and unhampered exchange of ideas. The ability to express one’s thoughts is now largely confined to the virtual realm, and the freedom to wield one’s voice in that expression is now, in no small part, at the whim of corporations run by megalomaniacal billionaire ideologues.
When the arena in which public debate takes place shifts to new ground, discourse in that new territory needs to be afforded the same privileges and protections it enjoys elsewhere. This is not currently the case, and our right to free speech is under extreme duress as a result.
Never a day passes now without new cases documented of “hateful” people having the right to voice their “problematic” thoughts and opinions suppressed. And with “hateful” and “problematic” being such subjective concepts, this is an extremely slippery slope on which society now finds itself.
You may have cause to celebrate the downfall of your particular chosen foe today, but when the tables turn tomorrow and it is now you or those you advocate in the sights of these corporations’ guns, who will you turn to then?