Free Speech and the Means of Communication

This XKCD comic caused quite a bit of discussion recently. There’s plenty one could debate here regarding freedom of speech and the various campaigns to oust this or that person (from Brendan Eich to Jonathan Ross) from a position because of their views (or views falsely attributed to them), but there’s a deeper flaw in the comic’s argument that should be mentioned.

The understanding of free speech the comic promotes is fatally undermined by the fact that the means of communication are privately owned.

Look at that first panel again. The basis of the argument is that “the right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” In the context of capitalism, that’s an incredibly reductionist definition. If speech is supposed to be free, we must ask: who owns the means by which speech is expressed and transmitted in the modern world? Who owns the newspapers? Who owns the TV channels? Who owns Twitter? Who owns Facebook? Who owns the film production studios? Who owns the ISPs? And so on. The answer is always the same: not the government. Not the people, either. All of these things are owned by capital. All of these things are industries.

So, in a situation where public discourse takes place in privately-owned spaces, how are the handful of people who ultimately own most of the media any different from a government? Apart from the lack of any kind of system of democratic control or a pretense of accountability, that is.

An old example of this is the Hollywood blacklist, in which people who were suspected of being leftists (or “communist sympathizers”) were prevented from working or receiving credit for their work. This is a classical example of censorship, and yet, according to the XKCD comic, it’s actually not a free speech issue at all, since it was a private initiative and not something forced onto Hollywood by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Yes, all that happened was that some powerful people in Hollywood thought that leftists were assholes, and showed them the door.

A newer example would be anything to do with Wikileaks or the War on Terror. When Twitter “disappears” trending topics about Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange or proof of various government-committed crimes against humanity, is that censorship? Not according to XKCD, because the government isn’t forcing them to do it. It just so happens that the political interests of capital are the same as those of a capitalist government, and so they act to protect each other. Twitter just thinks that dissenters are assholes, and is showing them the door.

But where are the public alternatives to Twitter or Facebook? Sure, you can kick somebody who’s annoying you out of your garden, but what happens when your garden is also the agora? What happens when the location of public discourse is not public?

Ultimately, what this comic is selling is a strange libertarian capitalist fantasy of freedom, where freedom is defined solely as freedom from government interference, but freedom from the structures of authority produced by the accumulation of capital is never considered.

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