I think we frequently mistake private property on the Internet (that is, certain websites) for the Internet itself, especially with respect to the kinds of (free) speech each affords.
I’m thinking about all the outrage written by the outgoing Gawker editors after their recent debacle, wherein they posted about the sexual misadventures of a Conde Nast employee, (in)advertently outting him to his family. The managing partners decided to pull their article, purportedly for ethical reasons (and also for advertorial reasons), and as a result the editorial team lost its shit.
I’m also thinking about the new standards of decency the management of Reddit is setting in place in disbanding various forums, where the topic of discussion is primarily sources of hate speech and harassment (the Reddit r/fatpeoplehate for example).
I was listening to a podcast of On Point with Tom Ashbrook called “Ashley Madison, Gawker, Reddit and the Internet Shame Spiral” and it was refreshing to hear for once some reasonable voices about what “free speech” means on the Internet.
One point Washington University of St. Louis law professor Neil Richards brought up is key: with the exception of government websites, websites are private property. They’re inherently no different than newspapers or magazines. They have management and investors like everything else. What a website says or does is up to the wherewithal of its owner, in the same way that what a newspaper says or does is up to what its owners want it to do, editorial “independence” aside.
In the case of Gawker, whether it was journalistically worthwhile to publish that article is irrelevant when the ability to publish anything at Gawker ultimately depends on the willingness of its owners to do so. This illusion of a fearless and unfettered right to publish is just that: an illusion of control over an entity where the real control is in the hands of the people who pay the salaries.
The situation is the same with Reddit. If its owners want to put in place policies that silence the voices of certain users with whom they don’t agree, this isn’t “censorship,” it’s the owners of Reddit redefining what kinds of users get to operate this piece of private virtual property they own. This decision is very different than say, the government allowing the KKK to protest the taking down of the Confederate flag at a government building: the ownership of the spaces in question are very different, and if the government prevented the KKK from protesting, this would be a violation of First Amendment rights to free speech.
Aside: To be clear, I personally don’t agree with this line of reasoning with respect to the KKK: hate speech doesn’t constitute speech, and therefore shouldn’t be free.
Where we should fight for freedom of speech on the Internet is at a much higher level, way above the domain of any single website: that’s on issues of net neutrality. The beauty of the Internet is that if you feel like your voice isn’t being heard, you can just publish your website somewhere else, and users of the Web will have equal access to it by virtue of the Internet’s radically accessible nature: there are no gatekeepers squelching access to one voice over the other. This is exactly what some users of Reddit are doing, by abandoning the platform and transitioning to new ones. What the Internet provides us is a medium upon which it’s easier and less expensive to disseminate our thoughts than other mediums, each in our own (privately-owned) little corners. This freedom to network is the kind of freedom we have to protect.