All the News Not Fit to Post

Free media have the right to exclude content; that is not censorship

Twitter and Facebook have suspended Donald Trump’s social media accounts after he incited a mob to storm the Capitol Building in Washington on January 6. Many Democrats say this is not enough, and plan to impeach Trump. But many Republicans say Trump’s freedom of speech has been violated by private corporations.

They are not alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has criticised Facebook and Twitter for breaching Trump’s ‘fundamental right to speak’. She says free speech can, and should, be restricted by governments in accordance with laws against inciting violence, but not by private corporations. French Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire echoes this sentiment, saying regulation of internet giants cannot be done by the same giants.

Lies, Damn Lies & Internet

These are pathetic excuses to divert attention from the failure of governments to check lies, hate and violence through the internet. Of course, governments have the right to regulate hate and lies, but havefailed miserably to do so. Instead, Merkel and Le Maire have the gall to criticise corporations responding to public outrage to institute ethical codes on what not to publish.

Let me emphasise a related, more important issue. The right to free speech must include the right to exclude unwanted voices. You must be free to voice your ideas, and yours alone, in speeches or on radio, TV and the internet. All must be free to speak without the compulsion to carry other voices.

As an individual, I have the fundamental right to voice my views alone, and exclude others who seek to use my communication channel. Otherwise, trolls could drown out all I have to say, to give only one example of misuse. The right to exclude is fundamental. Checking my right to exclude is a form of censorship, not promotion of free speech.

If a government prohibits your views, that is censorship. But if The Economic Times publishes only articles selected by its editor, and rejects hundreds of others with different views, is the newspaper guilty of censorship? No, it has merely exercised its right to exclude. The world has a thousand channels of communication. The government has the power to block all of them and, thus, censor free speech. But a private channel that excludes Trump does not, and cannot, censor him — Trump can use hundreds of alternative channels.

I am mystified by the near-sacred status accorded by critics to access to the social media. Free speech existed long before social media were created, and will continue long after they die of obsolescence. Every TV channel and newspaper chooses whom to give voice to and whom to exclude. Nobody has ever called that censorship.

Twitter may have been Trump’s favourite channel. But he can reach his fans through a thousand other websites. He can post rants against Twitter and Facebook on YouTube and other popular sites. Hundreds of TV and radio companies will not just give him voice but pay him large sums for appearances.

So, free speech does not disappear, and censorship does not silence voices, if some TV channel or internet site exercise their legitimate right to exclude. Can I switch off my TV set when Trump appears? Of course. I have the right to reject listening to him. That is part of free speech, not a violation.

Breaking Rules for a Living

Is it different when corporations like Facebook do it? I support regulation of internet companies on several issues. They have been among the biggest spreaders of falsehoods and hate, have bought out rivals to curb competition, and evaded taxes in dubious ways. Such misbehaviour needs checking by appropriate regulation.

Utilities like electricity and water are regulated in democracies, and rightly so. Europeans say internet giants should be regulated like utilities. But utilities cannot spread hate and enmity. Internet giants need regulation for various reasons I have mentioned, but must also have ethical norms and codes to exclude those they view as dangerous. That is essential corporate ethics, a form of corporate social responsibility to be encouraged, not banned.

The European Union (EU) has been at the fore of regulating US internet giants. This may explain Merkel’s and Le Maire’s knee-jerk reactions. But the need to regulate monopoly and misbehaviour by internet companies is absolutely no excuse to stop the companies from having ethical norms. Indian media have got together to devise norms on what should not be published. This is responsible behaviour, not censorship.

Far from being too harsh on speech, Facebook and Twitter have been criticised for not checking lies and hate speech. Indeed, they have been forced by public protest to initiate checks. Civil society has forced them to institute checks that governments have funked.

In sum, we must stop Trump, Merkel and their ilk from violating the fundamental right to exclude. This is a necessary part of free speech, not an impediment. People must not be forced to say — and corporations must not be forced to convey — sentiments they find objectionable. Politicians posing as saviours of free speech are, in fact, villains that have failed to check lies, hate and communal polarisation that are wrecking society and justice.

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