A lot of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists envision a future of small corporate states competing for migrants and capital by trying to have the best policies.
But the Internet is about as close to that vision as we’re likely to find outside the pages of a political philosophy textbook. And I am far from convinced.
Let’s back up. Internet communities – ranging from a personal blog like this one all the way up to Facebook and Reddit – share many features with real communities. They work out rules for punishing defectors – your trolls, your harassers – and appoint a hierarchy of trusted individuals to carry out those rules. They try to balance competing concerns like free expression and public decency. They host cliques, power grabs, flame wars, even religious strife. They try to raise revenue, they establish a class system of Power Users and Premium Users, they deal with resentment from people who aren’t getting their way. They develop a culture.
The job of a community leader, be they a blogger or the CEO of Facebook, is a lot like the job of the Mayor of New York City: create a pleasant community where talented people will want to live and work, where wrongdoing is met with swift punishment, and where you can collect revenue without annoying your constitutents too much. But it’s even more like a hypothetical corporate state CEO in a Patchwork or Archipelago – wield absolute power, tempered by the knowledge that your citizens can leave at any time – and if they don’t, skim a little off the top of their productive activity.
In theory, this is supposed to lead to amazing communities as corporate states optimize themselves to get more customer-citizens and new polities arise to take advantage of deficiencies in the old.
In practice, we tried this with the Internet for a couple of years, and then moved to the current system, where individual sites like blogs and little storefronts are in decline and conversation and commerce have moved to a couple of giant corporations: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Amazon, Paypal.
These companies aren’t exactly monopolies. To some degree, if you’re unsatisfied with Facebook you can move to Twitter. But they’re not exactly competitors either – there are a lot of things Facebook is good for that Twitter fails completely, and vice versa. It’s like Coca-Cola vs. milk: in theory you’ve always got the choice to drink either in place of the other; in practice you usually know which one you need at any given time. In that sense, there’s no real Facebook competitor except eg Orkut or Diaspora, which no one uses.
Which suggests one reason why these sites are so dominant: their main selling point is their size. Facebook is the best because all of your friends are on it; if I made a much better Facebook clone tomorrow no one would go unless everyone else was already there (Google found this out the hard way). Amazon is the best because you can buy pretty much everything you want there; Paypal is the best because most sites take PayPal. So not only do they have no competitors, but it’s really hard to imagine one ever arising. In order to compete with Facebook, you not only need a better product, you need a product that’s so much better that everybody decides to switch en masse at the same time. The only example I can think of where this ever worked was the Great Digg Exodus, where Digg screwed up their product so thoroughly that everyone simultaneously said “@#!$ this” and moved to Reddit.
So instead of “let a thousand nations bloom”, it ended up more like “let five or six big nations bloom that we can never get rid of”.
It’s a truism that the First Amendment only protects citizens from the government, not from other citizens. Nothing stops a private college from expelling any student who criticizes the administration, and nothing stops a private business from firing any employee who doesn’t support the boss’ preferred candidate. We apparently place our trust in the multiplicity of the market to maintain some semblance of freedom; out of thousands of competing companies, not all will ban the same political positions; if too many did so, other companies would start offering freedom of speech as a benefit and poach the more repressive companies’ employees and customers.
It’s a little concerning that we accept this argument about freedom of speech when we don’t accept it for anything else. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve racial equality – that’s what anti-discrimination laws are for. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve worker safety – that’s what OSHA and related regulations are for. We don’t even trust the free market to necessarily preserve fire safety – that’s why federal inspectors have to come in every so often to make sure you’re not secretly plotting to let your employees fry. Whenever we think something is important, we regulate the hell out of it, rights-of-private-companies to-set-their-own-policies be damned. But free speech? If you don’t trust the free market to sort it out, the only possible explanation is that you just don’t understand the literal text of the First Amendment.
The argument for non-discrimination laws is that discrimination isn’t just random noise. If a couple of companies here and there decided to discriminate, then they might be easily overtaken by nimbler companies willing to take any employees and customers who came to them; and even if they didn’t, a couple of companies here and there discriminating wouldn’t be the end of the world. The argument for non-discrimination laws is that discrimination can take the form of global social pressure in favor of discrimination, enforced by punishing defectors, to the point where certain races can find themselves locked out of the economy altogether.
Concerns about freedom of speech come from much the same place. Back when homosexuality was really taboo, you’d have a very tough time finding any reference to it, let alone a positive reference to it, in any newspaper or TV channel in the country. All the big companies knew that talking about it (or letting their editorial staff talk about it) was the sort of thing that could get them in trouble, and they had no particular incentive to do so – so they didn’t. Yes, eventually they reversed that policy, but I’m not exactly going to be able to cite an example that didn’t later become okay and still have everyone believe it’s a good example of something it was wrong to have banned!
But even when homosexuality was banned from formal discussion on the news, there was still the opportunity to discuss it with your friends in private. I don’t know much about the history of the gay rights movement, but I understand it was a few small groups of like-minded people who managed to coordinate such discussions among themselves using non-mass-media that started some of the activism that eventually led to it become accepted more generally.
Nowadays that’s a little more complicated. If every company in the world decided that their profit margin required them to appear Tough On Homosexuality, it wouldn’t just mean no mass media editorials. Insofar as a lot of the public square has been annexed by Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, the discussion can be kept out of the public square in a way it couldn’t have been previously. Insofar as the economy relies on PayPal and Amazon as a currency system and marketplace respectively, companies can just decide that currency cannot be used to support gay rights, in much the same way that for a while currency could not be used to support WikiLeaks. The nuclear option is that Google decides not to show gay-related sites in its search results, so that you could make as many persuasive arguments for legalizing homosexuality as you want and no one would ever find them unless you knock on their door and hand them the URL directly.
(The thermonuclear option is that browsers just include some code to refuse to render any site relating to homosexuality, and now you’re done. But that is ridiculous – who would ever believe that browser companies would take it upon themselves to be the arbiter of people’s personal beliefs about homosexuality?)
This is not entirely theoretical. You want some really weird porn? You probably won’t find it on Amazon, according to the delightfully-named article Amazon’s War On Bigfoot Erotica. After they got bad press for hosting some kind of out-there stuff, they decided that anything which offended too many people’s sensibilities was a liability. This echoes a much more serious decision from a few years earlier: Paypal threatened to suspend the accounts of any companies selling sufficiently gross erotic books. Booksellers, many of whom made only a tiny percent of their profit from erotica, claimed that their hands were tied; if you can’t use PayPal, selling on the Internet suddenly becomes a much more dubious proposition. This story has a happy ending; Paypal eventually amended their policy to limit it to much more specific cases. But for a while, it was touch-and-go enough that a few people started wondering: “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have entrusted our entire commercial infrastructure to a private company with no accountability.”
Advocates of net neutrality like to worry about a “two-tiered” Internet, where the companies that can make sweetheart deals with the ISPs are easy for everyone to access, and everybody else can only be accessed with a bit more money and a bit more trouble. Well, I worry about a two-tiered marketplace of ideas. Write decent erotica, socially approved erotica where everyone has heterosexual sex and then goes to church afterwards, and you can sell it on Amazon, collect profits using PayPal, talk to your friends about it on Facebook, and advertise on Reddit. Write weird erotica, the kind that other people might find offensive, and you might have to start your own website, take payment via some inconvenient method like Bitcoin, have trouble advertising it by word of mouth, and not be able to talk about it on literary discussion forums. It’s not that you’ve been banned from writing your erotica. You can write it. It’s just that practically nobody else will ever hear about it or buy it, except maybe the tiny fraction of people who are already extremely clued-in to the weird erotica scene and know exactly where to look for it.
This isn’t so much different from the old days when nobody would talk about homosexuality. Indeed, one could argue that the modern world is friendlier to people with unpopular ideas – there are more opportunities to self-publish, to bypass traditional bookstores, and to get covered in weird niche news outlets.
But at the same time, the amount of the information ecology controlled by private companies has increased drastically, and if private companies don’t like you, now you have entirely new problems.
I used to think that there was enough demand for a free marketplace of ideas that if a company become too restrictive, another one would spring up to replace it. Then I suffered through the conflict between Reddit and Voat.
Reddit recently alienated (no pun intended) some of its users, who decided to move en masse to an alternative Reddit-like platform called Voat, whose owner promised not to restrict content unless it was illegal (in his home country of Switzerland, which permits a lot). I don’t want to get into the details too much (though I did explain my perspective on it on Tumblr), but suffice it to say that (one) (small) part of the problem was that people thought Reddit was failing its free speech principles by cracking down on various unsavory groups.
HL Mencken once said that “the trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”
There’s an unfortunate corollary to this, which is that if you try to create a libertarian paradise, you will attract three deeply virtuous people with a strong committment to the principle of universal freedom, plus millions of scoundrels. Declare that you’re going to stop holding witch hunts, and your coalition is certain to include more than its share of witches.
So while some small percent of Reddit’s average users moved over, a very large percent of its witches did. Sometimes the witchcraft was nothing worse than questioning Reddit’s political consensus. Other times, it was harassment, hate groups, and creepy porn.
I feel obligated to say that, in spite of CONSTANT MEDIA SMEARS, Reddit’s community is amazing, puts in astounding effort to help its members and fight for good causes all over the world, and that the representation of weirdoes and terrible people is no higher than any other part of the population. But that’s not zero. And a disproportionate number of those people became interested in the new site.
Already, we see why the typical answer “If you don’t like your community, just leave and start a new one” is an oversimplification. A community run on Voat’s rules with Reddit userbase would probably be a pretty nice place. A community run on Voat’s rules with the subsection of Reddit’s userbase who will leave Reddit when you create it is…a very different community. Remember that whole post on Moloch? Even if everyone on Reddit agrees in preferring Voat to Reddit, it might be impossible to implement the move, because unless everybody can coordinate it’s always going to be the witches who move over first, and nobody wants to move to a community that’s mostly-witch.
But the problem isn’t just natural self-sorting. The problem is natural self-sorting, plus enemy action. Remember, the big corporations do what they do because it’s what everyone in society is demanding. To break from that mold is to pretty much set yourself up as everyone’s enemy and invite retaliation. The media and Reddit’s SJ community quickly denounced Voat as Public Enemy No 1; as a result, in its first week it got DDoS attacked, deleted by its hosting company with no explanation except “the content on your server includes politically incorrect parts”, and had its PayPal account frozen. As a result, the Great Reddit Exodus was placed on hold while they tried to get their site back up, and by the time they did Reddit had switched CEOs and the momentum was gone.
Advocates of free-market governance and “let a thousand nations bloom” like to talk as if overly restrictive laws in one polity will immediately result in the rise of other competing policies that throw off their shackles and outcompete the first. But even on the relatively lawless Internet, where startup costs are so low that a random student from Switzerland can decide on a whim to take on one of the largest websites in the world, it’s way more complicated than that.
Actually, the whole Reddit thing left a bad taste in my mouth.
It would be paranoid to say that there are people for whom fighting against free speech is a terminal value, but let me make a slightly weaker claim. There are people who consider themselves the protectors of decency, who notice that their opponents are usually using the value “free speech” to oppose their demands, and so “free speech” to these people becomes the equivalent of “small government” or “tolerance and equality” or “family values” – a value which most people agree is good, but which has gotten claimed by one side of a political argument so hard that for the other side it becomes an outgroup signal and sign of cringeworthy bad arguments which must be shot down. These people don’t quite have fighting free speech as a terminal value, but you might as well model them as if they do. These are the people who say “freeze peach” in the same way other people say “but mah jawbs!”
And these people have a winning strategy. I’ve seen it with Reddit and any other website that gets on their bad side. The strategy is weaponized stereotype campaigns. If a site tolerates witches, describe it as a witch site about witchcraft populated entirely by witches. It’s super easy. By happy coincidence, Slate even has an article calling people out on it this very week.
Think about it like this. No matter how many brilliant artists, scientists, and humanitarians Islam produces, in the mind of a good chunk of Westerners it will always be associated first and foremost with terrorism. Redditors, Diggians, Tumblrites, 4chanistas, Instagramastanis, Slashdotmen, Metafilterniks – all are groups that the average person knows a whole lot less about than they do Muslims. A concerted campaign to irrevocably identify an entire online community with a few atrocious actions by its worst members will succeed pretty much instantly. There are 36 million Redditors, so unless they advertise solely in the saint demographic, we expect the worst members to be pretty bad. Therefore, Reddit is at the mercy of anyone with the resources to start such a campaign. Reddit Inc’s main asset is its brand, so it has every incentive to cave – even a principled leadership would rather make a few administrative changes than sacrifice the whole to save some Holocaust deniers or whatever.
After that, the site’s userbase has two options – either suck it up, or go off somewhere else. Go off somewhere else, and they’ll get DDoSed, taken down by their host, and slowly starved of money like Voat, at the same time as the same media forces accuse the new site of being a hot spot for witchcraft – this time with good reason. The new site might not die out completely, but it will be sufficiently established in the hearts of everyone as a Bad Place that it will be stuck in the same equilibrium as central Detroit – only people with no other options will go there, because it is inhabited mostly by the sort of people with no other options.
The worst possible end-game for this is the two-tier marketplace of ideas mentioned above, with an unfortunate twist – everyone knows that the second tier is inhabited entirely by witches, and therefore being on the second tier is sufficient to convict you. Unpopular ideas are gradually forced out of the first tier by media smear campaigns, and from then on everyone believes the effort was justified, because it’s one of those second-tier ideas that you only find in the same sites as the racists and trolls and child pornographers. You’re not a second tier kind of person, are you? No, we didn’t think so.
I have no particular solution to this. Certainly the well-intentioned solutions other people are working on, like a decentralized crypto-Reddit that can’t be moderated even in principle, are unlikely to help (hint: what is the most striking difference between Bitcoin marketplaces and normal marketplaces?) My primary hope is that it’s just not a real problem. Certainly there has been very little in the way of speech restriction so far, and what little there has been has been against things which, on the object level, I’m happy to see gone. It’s entirely possible that we’ll escape with only a few things banned that probably deserve it. I certainly hope this is the case.
I’m just annoyed that we’ve gotten ourselves in a corner where we have to depend on hope.