What if there were many businesses in a chain of censorship ready to block “free speech” with no regulation, and any one of them could stop or restrict your free speech? There already are.
In a mostly unregulated environment, any one of the service providers along the chain can stop or limit your right to free speech. All it takes is one break in the chain to shut you down or reduce your impact. This means your free speech is subject to censors all along the way, each one with partial or total control over your content.
One break in the chain — just one censor — could cause you problems at the ISP level, the web host, payment processors, search engines, blacklists, browsers, social media, advertisers, and even the government, leaving your impact reduced or eliminated. All potential gatekeepers.
Currently, some of the would-be censors of the internet have lots of competition (some do not), but as consolidation continues and as companies share blacklists, that is changing. Over time, it will become harder to find alternatives once censored out. Also, some services don’t have much competition or they are so big that being censored out will cut down your free speech dramatically.
The market may sometimes protect against censorship in the most egregious or most publicized cases, but that leaves smaller players with no recourse. In time, the market may produce more competition to alleviate censorship, but damage occurs while we wait for the magic of the market to do its work. The market will not save us.
GATEKEEPERS IN THE CHAIN
INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER (ISP) UPLOAD. We start with the least likely way, but the most extreme way. Your ISP, the company that you pay monthly for access to the internet, could deny or limit your service so that you cannot get your free speech to that first step off your own computer. Total silence. Most people have one or few choices for ISPs, so if you are cut off this way, it will take a good amount of money or work to get around the censorship.
WEB HOST. If you would like to run a website yourself, you need a web host. You can make a beautiful site, post it online, build a following, then your web host cuts you off. This happens frequently. Fortunately, there are still many web hosts to choose from. So with some emergency work and an unexpected outlay of funds, you can get back up quickly.
PAYMENTS SYSTEM. If you are selling something or taking donations at your web site, your bank or payment processor could cut you off from those funds. Fewer payment options means less money. Less money means less incentive or less ability to produce content, and more time needed to work on other endeavors.
ISP DOWNLOAD. ISPs can block your ability to download information that might be necessary for you to be informed or they can customize your experience so specifically as to create a personal reality just for you. And after a while you won’t even notice the difference.
SEARCH ENGINE. Your site could be banned or demoted from a search engine. Search engine algorithms are top secret, but we can test from the outside for changes, and for one site, results looked like this:
NEWS MEDIA BLACKLISTS. If you should decide you want to make a news and information site that is independent of the corporate media or the well-funded think-tank and oligarch propaganda machine, you could find yourself on a blacklist like the infamous PropOrNot — to stimulate others on the chain to censor your site.
BROWSER SECURITY. One of the scariest things that happens when someone surfs the web is that mysterious message, “This website is not properly configured,” or something similar. Such a site may be perfectly safe, but it is treated as dangerous.
SOCIAL MEDIA. Big social media companies have become extremely important in gaining an edge for both online content producers and people doing other types of business in the world. If you are not on Facebook or Twitter or Linked-In, you are missing huge networking opportunities. You may also be at a disadvantage in employment opportunities, as more companies look at social media. These companies have Terms of Service (TOS), and they will suspend you or remove you permanently for alleged violations.
But there are few laws to say that social media companies have to follow their TOS at all. Terms protect the companies, not you. There are no requirements for due process, appeals, or even consistency. You’re banned based upon some standard computer-generated notice and that’s the end of it. FOREVER. They can ban you forever. You can even be charged with a crime for violating TOS.
ADVERTISING COMPANIES. Let’s face it, there is a glut of potential advertising space on the internet. Unless advertising services like AdSense find a way to cut people off, they risk a glut of product and declining revenue. This odd situation gives these companies incentives to roll back available properties. To do that, they can suddenly cut you off right in the middle of your elaborate project. And they can do that the same way social media companies to — no due process, no appeals, and no consistency.
NET NEUTRALITY GENERALLY. This one is huge, encompassing some other items on this list. The end of net neutrality means ISPs can show or hide and speed up or slow anything and everything on the internet.
DATA SHARING. One company may share its blacklists or restrictive data on you. If Google or Chrome or Firefox determines that your site is bad, other companies may comply with that information, no questions asked. Private search engine Startpage.com uses Google data, and therefore, builds in its biased search algorithms.
PRIVACY RULES. While we are on the subject of data sharing, a recent deregulation now permits ISPs to share your most private data right from the source — the browser on your computer (or any other internet interface). If there is anything that will make a person self-censor, it is the knowledge that those who might have power to take action against you know all of your private information. This is the classic “chilling effect,” and only the most mundane lives would believe they have nothing to hide. As the saying goes, those people probably don’t have much (controversial) to say either.
GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION. If there is anything that causes people to panic about free speech, government censorship would be that thing. In the real world, this currently only happens in extreme cases, like after a child molester or a hacker is convicted in court part of the sentence is restricted internet. This is a concern however, as the White House and executive agencies could use or avoid antitrust laws as revenge. For both of these things, Congress should tighten up regulations to reduce the likelihoods that individuals can be cut off or that corporations could be given biased treatment.
HATE SPEECH LAWS. Stop right here. There are no hate speech laws in the United States. Come back when the first hate speech law passes and take a look at what courts decide. Until then, this is just a hypothetical and a distraction from the real issues.
REGULATION. The only answer to counter the ideology that corporations may treat the internet as private property, searching you, ordering you to comply with rules they don’t have to enforce, throwing you off of services without any sort of process, etc., is regulation.
Regulation has its problems and dangers, but permitting total “freedom” by merging conglomerates to make all of these decisions without any review is the perfect form of censorship. We can either work on ways to reduce such absolute control and risk problems, or we can hand off our major method of communication to corporate interests, and hope they will behave in our interests.