The Public Square Must Be Public

George Caleb Bingham - Stump Speaking

A lot of things people say are both true and wrong. A good example of this is the claim that the First Amendment only applies to government censorship. This is true. But are we also going to say that this is good? I don’t think so.

In a world where the commons is now owned by private companies, we need to expand upon the First Amendment. And we need to be broader when we talk about free speech.

None of this should be seen as a defense of Donald Trump or conservatives more generally. The major social media platforms have been doing nothing but helping the conservative movement. Just look at the top shared articles on Facebook in any given week. It’s always overwhelmingly conservative articles with a couple of mainstream news items and nothing leftist at all.

Just as with the War on Christmas, what conservatives think is fair is for there to be great limits on everyone else while they get special rights. But there are major (Real!) free speech issues with the private ownership of the public square that greatly harm leftists.

Who Controls Speech?

The biggest political story since Republicans stormed the Capitol is that Amazon kicked Parler off their servers. The power of Amazon in the web hosting business has been a huge problem for years. If you pulled the plug on AWS, the internet as we know it would be gone. They host everyone! This is the biggest problem with Amazon, not its retail sales.

Parler seems to be a toxic entity on the internet. I have no problem with them being shut down. In fact, I’m happy about it. However, I don’t think Amazon should be the one to make that decision.

Similarly, I don’t have a problem with Trump being kicked off Twitter. But this example is illustrative.

Had Trump been an ordinary person, he would have been banned from Twitter years ago. In fact, I think that had Trump been a Democratic politician with leftist ideas, he would have been banned from Twitter.

So the question is not, “Why was Trump banned?” It was, “Why did it take so long”? And I think we know the answer to that. It’s because Trump is good for the bottom line. Fuck any concerns about the public good.

The Obvious Solution

Some people think that the big social media companies should become utilities. But to my mind, utilities are just a bullshit way of allowing the private sector to make a profit on things that are effectively collectivized. I’ve certainly not seen it working well here in California with PG&E.

So I say we just collectivize all of these things. We democratize the process of algorithms instead of allowing our country to be destroyed just so Mark Zuckerberg can add a few dollars to his store of wealth.

Now some may wonder why I had to write an article about this. What I’m proposing is really simple after all. And that’s the thing. Nationalizing general social media companies is distinctly outside the Overton Window. And that’s bizarre because the status quo is to allow the public square to be completely controlled by a few very rich individuals who have very different incentives from what is best for the public.

The Public Square Must Be Public!

So it’s obvious that the public square should be public. Yet we don’t generally talk about this because we are so caught up in a paradigm of socialism vs capitalism. But the progression of capitalism over the years has been to make more and more public space private.

When people like Adam Smith and Thomas Paine were writing, the world was far more public than it is today. It was still possible to go and find farmable land that didn’t belong to anyone. Not so today. Try farming an unused piece of land somewhere near you and see how long it takes for the police to come and arrest you.[1]

This isn’t rocket science. It isn’t brain surgery. It’s something that a toddler could understand. The public square should be public.

[1] Note that so-called libertarians are in favor of everything being private property. It shows that libertarians don’t really care about liberty. They care about private property. This is why a world run by libertarians would be a dystopia.

Image cropped by Stump Speaking by George Caleb Bingham in the public domain.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “The Public Square Must Be Public

    • I think we should do it. Democratically. But with strong constitutional protections.

      I used to be much more of an absolutist about this. But it can’t be the case that freedom of speech allows people to argue against free speech. It’s much the same as allowing Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood. In some kind of idealized world, I’m for it. But I don’t think that the rights of the Nazis to march trumps the rights of the Jews to avoid being terrorized. I realize this is difficult. But I think such issues are best dealt with my the society at large and not simply the richest people.

  1. Glen Greenwald (as usual) had a good take on this:

    If we’re strictly going by the book on First Amendment rights, Amazon etc. can shut out anybody they want. Just as the local paper can refuse to print my letter to the editor.

    But, there is a thing called the Sherman Antitrust Act, which is — by the book — still in effect. These companies today have at least as much market capture, if not more, than Microsoft did when they were slapped for making it tricky to use Netscape Navigator.

    It’s by no means just tech companies, either. John Deere is well-known for making it virtually impossible for farmers to do their own repairs/modifications. And most farmers like to tinker with things! There are many other examples.

    Nationalization would be one answer, and my preferred one — I completely think PG&E is such a terrible company that California should just hostile takeover its ass — but it’s not the only one. We could also break them up, we’ve done it before. And it actually creates more business money, for those concerned about such things. Most of the huge cell-phone companies now, Verizon, Sprint, etc., they started out as Baby Bells after we broke up Ma Bell.

    Of course, when you break up a big company into little companies, there’s always the risk that they operate in blatant or conveniently coincidental collusion. That’s still better than near-monopoly. If Ma Bell had never been broken up, we’d probably be lucky now to get good cell phone reception standing right underneath the tower.

    • My problem with Greenwald is that he’s come to this party pretty late — and only in defense of the worst people. I’ve been complaining about AWS for years. I have a problem with people who suddenly decide that Amazon’s dominance in cloud hosting is a problem because one of their allies has been harmed. AWS should have nationalized or broken up long ago because it’s bad for the market alone. The rest just follows. So fuck him!

      Also note that at this point, the internet couldn’t function without Amazon. That’s not an acceptable situation! And it’s been this way for upwards of a decade!

      But I agree with everything you said!

      • Greenwald can be annoyingly self-righteous, no doubt about it. Yet, so can I.

        There is a principle involved in defending the worst people. There’s a point, though, where being contrarian to shallow liberalism can become a crusade of its own.

        A writer can think of themselves as fiercely independent and still be trapped by their need to make all their writing about this independence; it’s an intellectual box no less than doctrinal ideology. Greenwald is much smarter and braver than Bill Maher, but he can definitely step into the same cowpatch of doodie sometimes.

        Unrelated note, I just finished the latest Thomas Frank, and he’s so far from the doodie patch, even his fiercest rage is a joy to read.

        • There’s a whole part of the left (and I’m not sure I would even place Greenwald on the left) that is against the right and the moderate left or center. This is a problem we’ve seen before. The communists in Germany refused to align with the social democrats. But my larger problem is that intensity matters more than anything. If everything is the Republicans are horrible and the Democrats are horrible too, then you just aren’t fighting the right; you are helping them.

          I didn’t know Frank had a new book. I will have to get it. I went to a reading of his large book. I couldn’t believe how long he spent talking to people. I discussed punk rock with him. I try to avoid saying public figures are nice because I know they are playing a role. But I would definitely like to have a drink with him!

          He signed my book “From Frank to Frank.”

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