The public square of the Internet

I remember seeing this argument during the dot-com boom:

From a capitalist libertarian and legalistic perspective, it makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that there is at least one more way of looking at it. And this applies not just to YouTube, but to Twitter and Facebook as well.

Once upon a time the world had not been subdivided into individualistic private parcels of land the way it is today. There were common areas that were widely used for various purposes. Importantly, they were social: People could meet without trespassing, do business, be neighbors, discuss the events of the day, even hold protests.

This should sound quaint, but also oddly familiar: Today, the Internet largely serves this purpose. And it is an essential purpose to society.

Which makes the individualized private spaces of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter problematic. Because at the very point that the author above affirms private property rights on the Internet, s/he is privatizing the modern commons. Which is the same thing that happened to the original commons.

Free speech rights may not apply de jure within privatized commons but that does not make those rights any less important.

So the advocates of property will naturally respond that this is a government and political function and not their responsibility. As is explicit in the Twitter post above. They insist upon this at the very same time they seek to eviscerate government because they object to government intrusions upon their “property rights.”

They call government a tyrant while they deny free speech rights on their own platforms. Which highlights the need for an independent space for speech. Government, after all, being a putative tyrant, cannot be trusted to protect rights to speech attacking its policies.

But the commons have been privatized. Which is to say, in effect, that you may only have free speech rights if you own the platform from which you would speak.

Imagine a commons where only the landlords could speak or stage a protest. And that is precisely where the logic of that tweet leads us.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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