Should tech giants control the public square?

by Daphna Whitmore

Twitter and Facebook shutting down Trump’s accounts after his supporters stormed Capitol Hill is old news now but the debates continue over whether the actions against Trump are a good thing or not. Those in favour of banning Trump say Twitter and Facebook are private companies and are within their rights. As one trade union official put it, “there is no obligation on any internet service provider or tech company to set up or host a platform which spreads lies, hate speech, calls for insurrection. It is not a free speech issue.”

This defence of the property rights of corporates is being made by people on the authoritarian left. “If you don’t like it you can go elsewhere” is their message. Tens of thousands of accounts were shut down in the days following Trump’s ban. Yet when people did move to Parler that platform was taken from app stores. Then Amazon switched off Parler’s servers making it inaccessible on the internet. Now the censorious complain about Parler going to a Russian web hosting company.

The tech giants currently have unaccountable power. The question is not so much about Trump – who with his 87 million followers was very lucrative for Twitter – but more about the rights of private citizens to what is essentially the public square today.

There are people saying: too bad, if you are banned from platforms this does not violate your freedom of speech, you still can give out leaflets, put up posters, use a loud hailer and hold meetings. It’s just less convenient, that’s all. Well it is more than inconvenient, it is rather like telling people they can ride horses and write letters with quill pens, as one defender of free speech pointed out in a discussion forum. As he noted, the fact old school methods of communicating were suggested showed just how much of a curtailment to free speech a big tech/social ban is.

The left should have the sense to realise that the wind can change and the fire can quickly head their way. It is already happening. Twitter has been shutting down leftist women for some years. Feminist journalist Meghan Murphy is a case in point being issued a lifetime ban from Twitter in 2018 for using male pronouns for a trans-identified male who was suing female beauticians for not waxing his testicles. At the time Yaniv went by the name Jonathan and used male pronouns, so the banning was doubly absurd. As a freelance writer, Murphy relies on social media platforms to share stories and publicise her work and the ban affected her ability to work.

The authoritarian left’s passion for closing down what they deem offensive speech tends to be selective. When hundreds of abusive tweets threatening rape and violence were hurled at J.K. Rowling the left authoritarians said nothing. They have generally been unwilling to voice criticism of the ongoing misogynistic abuse of gender-critical feminists.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of the corporates and the state runs counter to a genuine left position. Free speech is the cause of the left, although it is hard to see that now because so many on the left are happy for big tech and the state to wield control. Historically free speech was a left issue because the right was never constrained. The right has always owned the press and other media platforms. For the first time in history the masses have a platform through social media. As the class which has suffered the most from anti-democratic restrictions on movement, assembly, speech and other basic rights, the working class has a vested interest in fighting for the widest democracy possible.

3 comments

  1. It indicates the need to build worker owned and controlled Open Source platforms. Similarly, in the past, workers in newspapers refused to print material that was reactionary. Control should be in the hands not of media company shareholders. Finally, Marx noted that joint stock companies (corporations) are transitional forms of property as much as worker cooperatives, and there is no economic or juridical basis for shareholders (creditors) to exercise control over the corporations actual capital, any more than say a bondholder, a landlord and so on who also lend money or land to a firm.

    As socialised capital, the capital of a corporation belongs to the company itself as a legal entity in its own right. But, as Marx sets out in Capital III, the only logical basis for control of this socialised capital is then the associated producers within the firm, its workers and managers. The basic question of our time, as Marx sets out in the Communist Manifesto, in Capital III, and in his Inaugural Address is the property question, and, thereby, the question of industrial democracy, the democratic control over this socialised capital by the associated producers themselves.

    In the worker cooperative, this is manifest from the start. Yet, we continue to accept that shareholders, merely creditors, should have a right to control capital they do not own. The major struggle of our day should be that outlined by Marx, to bring the juridical and political relations into alignment with the actual productive and social relations represented by socialised capital, i.e. to ensure that workers and not shareholders exercise that democratic control. This does not even imply a socialist revolution, but merely consistent application of bourgeois property laws that the owners of property exercise control, and non-owners do not. It simply implies a consistent application of the principles of progressive social democracy, demanding that a social-democratic government pass corporate law to abolish the right of shareholders to exercise control, and establishing the right of workers and managers to do so. That is also the rationale set out by Marx and Engels in anti-Durhring.

    In fact, its in part recognised by social-democrats with the co-determination laws in Germany, a proposal that was recommended in the 1970s; for the whole of the EU – Fifth Draft Company Law Directive, and in Britain, Bullock Report. It is simply the rational extension of that principle. Of course, in reality, as Marx set out in his Inaugural Address, the ruling class which comprises now entirely coupon clippers whose revenues come from the ownership of fictitious rather than real capital, will not sit by and allow even that without a fight, even though, as M & E set out, even in such a system of state monopoly capitalism they would draw huge revenues from the interest they receive on their bonds, or in dividends on their shares. It would require essentially a political revolution, but better to put them on the back foot trying to defend an impossible position of why they should control capital they don’t own than continuing to allow them to perpetuate that lie.

  2. Pre-Facebook &c days like in the 1990s we used to discuss on what are called “newsgroups.” That was even in some cases before http stuff. I used to be active in the group talk.euthanasia. Groups were archived in “dejanews.” That was bought by Google and the group seems to have disappeared taking with it a huge amount of work and thought. Some of the groups still exist a bit on groups.google.com. misc.activism.progressive was good with its discussion of the Seattle trade talk protests, and some may still be there but I can’t find the professional agitator stuff talking about clearing the way for Clinton.

  3. The left is in an awful state at present. Much of it is in such a sorry state that it doesn’t know who is a male and who is a female, let alone be politically clear about the importance of democratic rights around speech issues. Sections of the left, for instance, will today argue for the sacking from their jobs of gender-critical marxists and feminists, and actively try to get people sacked.

    On some important issues a lot of the left and right have traded positions. The degeneration of a lot of the left into wokeness, anti-science, anti-rationalism, hostility to democratic speech rights means that it is quite common to find authoritarian practices in campaigning groups and also supposedly worker-controlled internet spaces.

    The case for democratic rights, which was a critical part of the thinking of much of the radical left back in the 60s and 70s, has to be continuously re-made. As it is, woke elitist liberal politics have cast a pall over the whole left. The idea that workers need to hear differing and clashing viewpoints and be able to make their own minds up is largely missing from the mindset of the authoritarian wokies.

    Phil F

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