Corporate Censorship

 

Free speech is often one of the most trophied rights of western societies. The right to speak freely, however, is often accompanied by some version of the adage: “You have freedom to speak but no freedom from the consequences of your speech.”

Freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are included in free speech in many countries; but in our current technological situation speaking freely involves using many mediums to express thought. The question becomes, does everyone have the right to express themselves through certain social mediums?

Freedom of expression has been debated and unfortunately limited in certain cases (both legally and illegally). Yet despite these inconsistent boundaries, groups like Scientology and the KKK, though limited, are still endured and allowed to operate.

On the internet, the shackles on free speech via digital mediums have been thankfully slow and hotly contested; however, the lack of government oversight puts certain corporations in the line of fire. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and other social media websites often take down content considered excessively offensive or inflammatory. Most people have no problem with ISIS twitter accounts being banned, Facebook groups who threaten activists with rape being dismissed, /r/FatPeopleHate being shut down, or YouTube content being removed and the associated accounts seized. Many, however, become slightly uncomfortable with the idea that Facebook is censoring certain content in China, Turkey, and elsewhere. As uncommon as these cases are, most everyone would be uncomfortable with how arbitrarily and inconsistently these vague boundaries are enforced.

When an individual or group posts something that incites others to offense, the offended party often petitions corporate sponsors, employers, and the site which the individual or group used to express themselves to silence or punish the offender. Often the demands are unorganized but require that the corporation remove the offender, cut their support, or remove their account thereby limiting their ability to freely express themselves. Comedians, executives, politicians, and fairly unremarkable people have all fallen on the wrong side of public ire. Corporations will often remove or censor individuals in anticipation of a public reaction even when none may be coming. What determines the outcome of each instance is, in short: mob justice by corporate actors.

Most inflammatory material sinks to the bottom of the ocean of data we create anew each day, but as these waves of data bat at each other in an effort to  to stay afloat, if only for a brief moment, occasionally someone’s tweet, post, or video will light a fire or incite a mob. After the associated corporations deal out punishment the perpetrator is often forgotten, but not left unscathed.

Obviously many businesses have an unspoken incentive to distance themselves from any negative publicity, but corporate censorship begs the question: is the ability to express yourself on social media a right? Or when, if ever, does social media become a large enough vehicle of expression to be considered a right? And how comfortable are we with trusting these rights to corporate judiciaries?

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