Imagine that you are a resident in a low-population county in 1950. You run afoul of the small group of families who are effectively in charge. Your political and legal rights are unimpaired. You are free to vote and you are free to sue in municipal and county and state courts. The police treat you with unfailing courtesy and respect.
But strange things start to happen. The only newspaper in the county refuses to take ads for your business. The only bank in the county announces that it is closing your account and calling in your mortgage. Your car breaks down and the only garage and service shop in the county refuses to repair it. The only general store in the county refuses your patronage and the few restaurants in the county turn you away at the door. After you lose your business to the newspaper advertising boycott, you try to get a job, but discover that you have been blacklisted by all of the employers in the county. Nobody will hire you.
Are you free, in this scenario, just because there is no official interference with your voting rights and your civil rights? Private power is power, no less than government power. You can be immobilized, impoverished, humiliated, tormented, and perhaps driven to suicide by hostile businesses and banks in an otherwise functioning liberal democracy, just as surely as by the police or military in a dictatorship.Michael Lind, “America’s New Corporate Tyranny” at Tablet (January 15, 2021)
Indeed. It is happening today. Social action groups get suddenly debanked (as CitizenGO was by Transferwise). Or suddenly deplatformed (as Lifesite was by YouTube) Books suddenly get canceled (as Senator Josh Hawley’s book was, by Simon and Schuster).
Popular psychology author Jordan Peterson narrowly escaped “depublishing” recently: “‘People were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives,’ one employee told Vice News.” But so far, Peterson’s publisher has held the line on its sobbing depublishers.
Lind, author of The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (2020), asks us to see that Amazon is the General Store and Google is the Newspaper in our world today. A handful of giant banks and credit card companies that control most transactions are the Bank. All of them are feeling their power and they mean to fully extend it. From ArsTechnica, we learn that Big Tech giants have informed the U.S. Supreme Court that it should be harder for you to sue them.
Lind has no illusions about who Big Tech are and what they represent:
The truth is that the corporate proscriptions, purges, and deplatformings were a brutal exercise of raw power by a few very rich people who share jurisdiction over the citizens and residents of the United States under the corporate constitution.
Today Americans live under two constitutions: the political constitution and the corporate constitution. The political constitution is functioning reasonably well. The corporate constitution, by comparison, is a lawless realm of out-of-control tyranny.Michael Lind, “America’s New Corporate Tyranny” at Tablet (January 15, 2021)
The problem is getting more serious. As Michael Cook points out at MercatorNet, the current social media environment resembles, at a number of points, East Germans snitching to the Stasi (secret police) when that region was under totalitarian rule from 1950 to 1990:
To deal with trouble-makers the Stasi had a policy called, in German, Zersetzung. It’s a difficult word to translate. Originally it meant “decomposition”. But in the context of the East German police state, it meant destroying dissidents. “The goal,” according to German historian Hubertus Knabe, “was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships.” Sound familiar?
A striking feature of Stasi control was how cooperative ordinary citizens were. In 1989, in a population of about 16 million, the Stasi employed about 200,000 informers. Between 1950 and 1989, about 620,000 people are believed to have been informers at some stage or other. It appears that young men between 25 and 40 were over-represented. So much for the idealism of youth.Michael Cook, “Who needs the Stasi? We’ve already got Google” at MercatorNet
Cook points to the film The Secret Lives of Others as giving some sense of the atmosphere:
No, it’s not nearly that bad here yet. But, with uncontrolled Big Tech’s second constitution, we are on the spectrum. And the comparative ease of mass high tech surveillance today will likely make everything worse.
Lind argues that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts social media from usual consequences, has functioned as a “Get out of jail free” card for online authoritarians. Their usual claim, when censoring or deplatforming people, is that they are “publishers” and can choose to unpublish. But, whereas regular publishers would be sued for defamation in many instances, Big Social Media can turn around and cite Section 230 and thus escape. Therefore, Lind thinks, the answer lies in requiring social media to vet posts, if they claim to be publishers:
The remedies for arbitrary corporate power in the new infrastructure industries, then, are simple and straightforward. Define online opinion and video platforms as regular publishers, subject to traditional publishing regulations that seek to deter dissemination of libels, profanity, obscenity, intellectual property theft, and so on. And define all the other big tech firms either as common carriers or public accommodations that are clothed in a public interest.Michael Lind, “America’s New Corporate Tyranny” at Tablet (January 15, 2021)
Many people wouldn’t like that. But many of the worst problems associated with social media would simply disappear. There would be much more competition, enabling everyone to have their say somewhere, if they were not in violation of civil or criminal law.
It is one of many policy prescriptions we will be examining in the months ahead.
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Finally, someone is seriously suing Twitter. Twitter is now being sued in Canada because Canada does not offer the protections accorded to the social medium that it has enjoyed in the United States. (Caitlin Bassett)
“Disinformation”: Do we really need a “Reality Czar”?
Canada dodged a bullet in 2014. The United States will not be so lucky if it adopts Big Tech’s new proposals against “disinformation” online. Proposals to entrench a reality czar are a one-way ticket to an authoritarian state that withers intellectually because only the approved people are allowed to circulate opinions. (Denyse O’Leary)
In Big Tech world: The journalist as censor, hit man, and snitch. Glenn Greenwald looks at a disturbing trend in media toward misrepresentation as well as censorship. When an institution is no longer needed, its sense of its mission usually changes. The type of people attracted to it change too. (Denyse O’Leary)