Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column explores the distinction between freedom of speech in the legal sense and the pragmatic limitations encountered on the Internet:Inaction Is a Form of Action
He focuses on the effects of the dominance exerted by tech giants such as Facebook and Google. The Constitution forbids government interference with freedom of speech, but it doesn't prevent private businesses from setting their own rules. Constructing a parable of two restaurants, one that forbids political conversation on its premises and another with no such prohibition, he acknowledges that customers who don't like the restrictions of No Politics Diner can eat at Anything Goes Bistro. But suppose No Politics Diner not only buys up all its competitors but branches out to own a variety of other kinds of businesses as well? It's theoretically possible that soon there won't be any privately owned public spaces in town where customers can discuss politics. Without any interference by government, freedom of speech has effectively been limited.
With the pithy comment that Facebook "has hostages, not users," he applies this analogy to online services. When the giants have swallowed up so many of their competitors that (in an exaggerated but still chilling quote) the Internet has become “five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four,” policies set by these companies can restrict online speech even though no state censorship is involved. Services such as Facebook make rules, followed by exceptions to the rules, then additional layers of regulations to close the loopholes created by the exceptions. The resulting incomprehensibly complex tangle of exceptions and loopholes, according to Doctorow, "will always yield up exploitable vulnerabilities to people who systematically probe it." While the trolls run rampant, the rest of us may have no means of defending ourselves against them.
He has a list of suggestions for "fixing" the Internet to transform it into an environment "that values pluralism (power diffused into many hands) and self-determination (you get choose which tech you use and how you use it)." One thing he urges is breaking up the Big Tech monopolies. I have reservations about whether this course of action is practical (or, under current law, legal, but that's an area I don't know much of anything about). It's hard to argue with his summary of the problem, however: "When the state allows the online world to become the near-exclusive domain of a small coterie of tech execs, with the power to decide on matters of speech – to say nothing of all the other ways in which our rights are impacted by the policies on their platforms, everything from employment to education to romance to (obviously) privacy – for all the rest of us, they are making policy."
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt