Is it true that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are private companies, which can cancel, delete, or ban anyone they want at any time? Short answer: No. Here are some suggestions for how to think about the social media wars, and whether online censorship is simply a matter of private property rights.
A lot has happened over the past few days, as Twitter continues to anoint itself the Censor Librorum of the woke faithful. The latest victim was conservative pundit Jesse Kelly, whose summary excommunication stirred even Ben Sasse to indignation. (The Weekly Standard meanwhile continues its descent into intellectual bankruptcy, with Deputy Online Editor Jim Swift commenting, “If lots of your favorite accounts keep getting suspended maybe consider that your favorite accounts probably suck.”).
Kelly’s account has since been reinstated amidst the uproar. But even in reinstating him, Twitter seems to be dancing around the truth of what happened. “The account was temporarily suspended for violating the Twitter Rules and has been reinstated. We have communicated directly with the account owner,” a spokesperson for Twitter said. But as Sean Davis of The Federalist pointed out:
That’s a lie. Twitter’s own notice to @JesseKellyDC said he was permanently banned, and never gave a single justification for it. Twitter is lying now just like it lied to Congress about not censoring content based on political views. https://t.co/0cAI9mj6gA
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) November 27, 2018
In response to the week’s events, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame, has opted to leave voluntarily, closing his Twitter account rather than await eventual banishment for heresy.
But as Julie Kelly has noted, conservatives should not give up on Twitter. This is a fight worth having. Think about it this way: Jack is stealing your stuff.
A dry-cleaner can refuse your business, but if he doesn’t want you as a customer any more, he doesn’t get to keep the clothes you dropped off last time. That’s an extreme example, but a similar principle is at stake here. Social networks are not utilities in the sense of using a non-duplicatable physical infrastructure. There’s no actual physical barrier to creating an alternate Twitter.
There may be a practical one, however. The big social media companies gained a huge market share, and have thereby tied people up in a lot of sunk costs, by deceptively advertising themselves as neutral platforms. Very few people would have shared their information and helped these companies build up their networks if they had been told up front there would political censorship once they were big enough to push out any competitors.
A restaurant may have the right to refuse anyone service, but when I make a reservation for a large party to celebrate a special occasion, it’s a breach of an unwritten contract if the restaurant’s management decides it doesn’t like my opinions and cancels my reservation after I’ve already invested a lot of time and trouble. My efforts were based on a reasonable expectation that the restaurant would not act arbitrarily in suddenly deciding to turn me away. The same principle applies to Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
Plenty of journalists, authors, celebrities and just ordinary people with something to say have invested untold hours in writing tweets, sharing links to those thoughts and observations, and building a network of followers. Where does Twitter get the right to kick you off its network and steal or destroy all your content? As a strictly legal matter, there may be something in the fine print of your user agreement that allows them to do so. But none of the libertarians and “conservatives” invoking a strained definition of property rights are referring to this fine print. They are making a principled argument about what private companies more or may not do. Since when does any company get to steal or destroy its customers’ property—intellectual or otherwise?
Consider one final example that relates directly to digital content. Before Zuck and Jack there was Bill . . . Gates, that is. He was extremely aggressive in grabbing market share for Microsoft. But he never tried to tell his customers what they could think or say or write. Many people still use Microsoft for their word processing needs. When you use that program, you don’t actually own the software; you rent it through a license agreement.
Now imagine if one fine day you received a notice from Microsoft saying, “Hey, we’ve been spying on what you write, and your documents contain a lot of ideas we think are deplorable, so your license agreement is cancelled. There is no appeal.” You find that Word is now deleted from your computer, along with all the files that were stored in that format. Boom! Unless you had the foresight to copy all your content into some other format, your inability to open or access Word would mean everything you ever saved as a Word document would be inaccessible. Would any libertarian defender of “private companies” claim that’s legitimate? How does it differ from Twitter kicking you off their platform and locking you out of everything you created there?
What the social networks are doing is wrong. It’s not a legitimate exercise of property rights. It’s deception and theft. We should fight them.