Free speech and power

I hate to participate in “the discourse”, but a lot of folks on Gemini are talking about free speech today, and I’ve had something to say on the topic that’s been rattling around my head for a while.

Often in free speech conversations, somebody invokes the difference between “government censorship” of speech vs. private platforms limiting speech. Liberals and conservatives with both do this when it’s convenient for their argument. As though The Notable difference between a discussion board banning someone for being rude, and the government jailing someone for being critical, is that one decision involves private property and the other doesn’t.

This is nonsense.

It doesn’t matter why somebody has power — whether, for example, they were elected by voters in some state I don’t live in, or they were born rich and became richer — power is power. I don’t see a meaningful difference between the billionaire owner of a popular social media platform, and the chair of a government “Disinformation Governance Board”; these people have significant power to both limit what I can say and what I get to hear, and I have a major problem with that. Not because I’m a “free speech absolutist”¹, but because these people aren’t actually accountable to me.

Let’s return to the forum moderator vs. the state censor. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that the discussion board is “private property” is immaterial to any conversation about freedom. The important distinction is that 1) kicking me off of a forum and 2) throwing me in jail are different (by several orders of magnitude) in the material harm I would experience, the amount of power required to accomplish these things, and the options I have to fight back. That billionaires have the power to control the flow of information through newspapers, TV stations, and social media platforms is just as much of a problem as powerful state bureaucrats being able to do the same things.

[1] Of course nobody is literally a free speech absolutist, this is just a label some people like to adopt for rhetorical purposes; if you think Elon “NLRB Violations” Musk supports unlimited free speech, I have a bridge made with non-union labor to sell you.