As far as speech is concerned, the rule-of-thumb view we should adopt is that any individual or private group has the right to determine who is allowed in their space, and what can be said and done in it, without government interference or a legal obligation to adhere to public opinion. This also means they should have full control over who and what they can remove from their space. This should apply whether we’re talking about a small café, a large grocery store, or internet servers. In short, the state has no business forcing anyone to bake a cake or publish a tweet.
However, it is an error to view privately owned property and platforms as a realm where any given case of speech being prevented, removed, or actively denounced by the people or entities that control it as deserving no further consideration than a simple acknowledgement of their right to do it. A stance of principle in favor of the right for private persons and entities to control what they own and who can leverage it is a separate point to consider from whether de-platforming, the choice to disassociate with someone (or a certain “kind” of people), or the refusal to run their opinions can ever amount to a form of private censorship just as concerning and damaging to a healthy public discourse as state censorship. Those who manage and regulate privately owned, major outlets and forums for discussion often hold very concentrated power that grants them the ability to exercise a unilateral choice over major forms of censorship, and the social capital to influence others to further that censorship. Whether any given instance of private censorship is ultimately a “good” or “bad” should always be a legitimate question and judged on a case-by-case basis, as it can drastically widen, or narrow, the free marketplace of ideas.
What articles and essays are published, which opinions get the most exposure, who we consider authorities on a topic, what groups are allowed to continue to leverage their metaphorical megaphones, what are deemed more “normal” views, and so on, are not decided by an objective or scientific process, or even a truly democratic one. Online or offline, a relatively small amount of platforms, publications, and social forums — and those that manage, regulate, and influence them — hold the keys to who can access meaningful exposure, discourse, debate, or further influence. In a certain way, mainstream news publications and popular social media platforms, for example, can sometimes act as the final decision-makers on what ideas, opinions, and conversations receive the critical mass of exposure or momentum necessary for serious engagement and consideration. And because of this, it is not always who finds exposure or a platform that should concern us, but who doesn’t, why they didn’t, and if a particular case of private censorship, on net, damages the health of public discourse.
Many will rush to say that anyone who doesn’t find a platform for their opinions or a forum for their particular flavor of discussion can just go and build their own space that competes with others. However, online or offline, the creation of one’s own platform or forum is always easier said than done — not just from the standpoint of logistics but, perhaps more importantly, considering the social costs and hits to credibility that come with being in line with, or having access to, the mainstream or not. To take one example, the purge of many with right-wing opinions from mainstream social platforms has been cheered on by many strong proponents of private and individual liberty as simply the glorious workings of freedom of association, and the right of private platforms to control their own space. Furthermore, much additional comedy has been made at the expense of how lacklustre and unimpactful the right-wing project Parler has been. While the details of this exact case and who is involved are indeed a rich resource of irony and hilarity for more than one reason, among many other things it is nevertheless a testament to how much control a small number of companies and private decision-makers have in shaping the membership, framework, and variance of majorly frequented, mainstream areas of online society — in other words, deciding who is welcome to, or ostracized from, major areas of mainstream public discourse. Ultimately, Parler was viewed as out-of-the-ordinary and laughable by most. Anyone who participated in it was immediately tarred with the same brush, signing themselves up for a loss of any semblance of credibility. Whether these people are sincerely participating in public discourse and the “marketplace of ideas,” or are just in their own echo chamber, by building and using this platform, is not really a question anymore.
Of course, there are clear-cut cases where virtually everyone can agree that someone’s personal conduct or behavior is grounds for removal from privately controlled space — whether it’s repeated violations of a clear set of rules, continuation of a certain action after warnings, and so on. And to be clear, asking someone to leave, say, your house (for any reason) is not somehow the end of free speech or open dialogue. However, it should concern everyone when privately-owned spaces that act as massive forums for popular social interaction, organization, and discussion have the right to not just maintain an orderly or respectful atmosphere, but also to actively filter out specific opinions, cleanse certain political views, and banish particular topics of discussion. On principle, that kind of regulation and cultural management should be understood as something that can happen to any like-minded group. We need not focus on fish-in-a-barrel cases of fringe groups switching platforms or things like racist opinion getting banned from Twitter to get our thinking going on some of the troubles with control over forums for ideas, opinions, and social interaction concentrated in the hands of relatively few. After all, these are often primarily businesses or business-like institutions. Human biases and vested interests unconcerned with the principles of robust debate and civil interaction will always enter the equation and influence what discussions and opinions are allowed, or not allowed, to see the light of day.
George Orwell’s unpublished introduction to Animal Farm raises similar concerns. The whole essay should serve as a stern note of warning directed at those eager to lampoon government censorship and suppression of opinion in countries like the Soviet Union or China without taking a look at who holds power and how public discourse works in their own country. If we keep in mind that publishing essays, articles, books, etc. to paper made for a significant portion of (if not most) of the fodder and guiding forces of public discourse at the time, then it’s clear that Orwell understood that those who own those outlets and platforms ultimately control opinion-filtering processes. They not only play a role in simply deciding what gets published and what doesn’t, but also in turn what enters public discourse, who is allowed to participate in shaping it, and who is positioned to gain respect and influence. Indeed, according to Orwell, in some ways “the chief danger to freedom of thought” is not state censorship:
“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.
Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio.
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It [is] not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other but it is “not done” to say it…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” [Paragraph breaks mine for ease of readability]
Orwell was speaking about Britain, and obviously couldn’t specifically address the state of the press and new social paradigms like the internet in 2021, but the point generalizes to the present and most Western societies: it is not only government/public power that carries the characteristics of disproportionate, centralized power that can be used to silence dissenters, filter information, and regulate public discourse. Today, even with vastly more opportunities to publish an essay, circulate an opinion, and so on, being locked out of the mainstream necessarily means you’re relegated to the margins and small-time activities — it also doesn’t help that you will be viewed as such. Indeed, when it is “not done” to say certain things, or you are going against prevailing orthodoxy — perhaps even by simply challenging a private regulator’s judgement — you already have an uphill battle of credibility and access stacked against you.
To be clear, raising concerns against private power as a means of censorship is not a call for the implementation of any government policy, nor is it to say that one or another particular case of private censorship is automatically for the better or worse. However, the health of public discourse and concerns about the framework of that discourse is more complicated than any black-and-white statement about rights or what people can and cannot do. We can appreciate the checks that private power puts on public power, and how it balances against other forms of private power, while still recognizing the problems that come with its concentration. We should understand how private power works in the “marketplace of ideas,” and how freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and speech can be controlled and regulated. It’s not wise to dismiss how crucial a role is played in shaping public discourse and broader opinion by those that manage major outlets and platforms for discussion and socializing. Maintaining a healthy public discourse requires having room for different opinions and maximizing the breadth of discussion. That certain people and entities have the right to leverage their power over public discourse is not the beginning and the end of all worthy discussion.