Pluralistic: 23 Jan 2021

Today's links

Stop saying "it's not censorship if it's not the government" (permalink)

If you think "It's not censorship unless the government does it," I want to change your mind.

It's absolutely true that the First Amendment only prohibits government action to suppress speech based on its content, but the First Amendment is not the last word on censorship.

Here are some kinds of private speech-suppression that I think most of us can agree are censorship: when the John Birch Society burned mountains of rock records and novels – or when Tipper Gore's PMRC pressured record stores to drop punk, metal and rap albums.

Or the Comics Code Authority, which signed up all comics publishers and retailers to block comics if they contained anything unfit for small children, which stunted American comics for generations while their European counterparts created entire sophisticated genres.

Or MPAA ratings, in which a secret group of censors (falsely described as frequently rotated, randomly selected parents – really they're long-serving studio insiders) decides whether movies get NC-17 ratings and thus be blocked from nearly every screen in the country.

(You can learn more about this from Kirby Dick's unmissable doc, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which documents both how the MPAA misleads the public about ratings, and uses them to block LGBTQ content)

Do those feel like censorship to you? They do to me. They share a common thread, too: monopoly. In each case, the number of retailers, producers, distributors, etc is small enough that if they collude to block something, it effectively vanishes.

Or the Inquisitions – which were not government censorship. The Inquisitions undertaken by Church officials, who were not part of any government – instead, they represented an unaccountable, transnational authority that governments were largely powerless against.

Does that sound familiar? Our media, speech forums, and distribution systems are all run by cartels and monopolists whom governments can't even tax – forget regulating them.

The most consequential regulation of these industries is negative regulation – a failure to block anticompetitive mergers and market-cornering vertical monopolies.

When governments fail to block the monopolization of speech forums, they're enabling censorship, just not in a way that violates the First Amendment, so we have no recourse and no transparency and no right of action when it happens.

If we only call something "censorship" when it involves state action, then there's basically no such thing as internet censorship – not because speech is never suppressed, but because under that theory the First Amendment simply does not apply to the internet.

Social media is a duopoly. If neither will admit you, you can't use it. So you start your own site! Cloud computing is also clustered into a handful of companies (with AWS, a major military-intelligence contractor, running >50% of that business).

If they block you, you'll need to host your own server. The majority of data centers are also concentrated into a few hands, too. Oh, so are the domain registrars. And the payment processors. Also the anti-DDoS companies and CDNs. Search is run by one company.

How many companies need to collude to make it impossible for you to have a detectable internet presence? It's less than 50. And really, since losing any part of this stack can be a definitive blocker, it can be as few as two companies (mobile apps), or even one (search).

You won't be completely unlocatable – the Inquisitons didn't seek to snuff out every copy of banned works (indeed, they preserved many of them in their private libraries!) and the PMRC, Comics Authority and MPAA ratings board don't totally eliminate their targeted media.

But your speech will be marginalized and buried in ways that would be totally illegal if this were the result of state action. Only this speech is sidelined due to government inaction.

Ironically, the only corner of the networked world where the First Amendment gets a look in is city-run broadband services – the same services that conservatives who have newfound concerns about online censorship deplore as "government intervention in the market."

40 years of antitrust malpractice created a situation in which censorship is up, speech is perilous, and the First Amendment doesn't apply in either case.

The answer is not to impose speech duties on private platforms.

"Fairness doctrines" are why the BBC spent years airing anti-vaxxers and climate deniers every time they had a story about why you should get vaccinated and vote for decarbonization.

Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated far worse editorial judgment than Auntie.

The problem with the tech giants isn't just their bad judgment, it's how consequential their mistakes are. Trying to improve the judgment of the tech companies is a fool's errand, a project without precedent. No one's ever convinced a monopolist to turn benevolent dictator.

If we can't stop the tech giants from making mistakes, at least we can reduce the consequences of their errors by making them smaller. Block mergers. Unwind mergers undertaken on false premises (like FB/IG/WA and Google/YT/Ad/Doubleclick).

Force interoperability upon them as the EU's Digital Services Act and the US ACCESS Act contemplate, then take away their right to block other forms of interoperability:

And for god's sake, stop talking about CDA 230 as an answer to any of this. "You must moderate all your users" is a death sentence to anyone who doesn't have an army of moderators – anyone who might challenge FB and Twitter.

For Big Tech, a legal moderation duty is just an excuse to remove any speech that anyone anywhere might complain about: "Sorry we removed your anti-pipeline protest announcement, but we were worried we'd be sued if we didn't."

When the government censors, it's "unconstitutional censorship," but there are other forms of censorship that have always been with us and that we should all be concerned about.

When it comes to communications tech, competition policy is speech policy.

Trump's swamp gators find corporate refuge (permalink)

Have you seen the stories about how Trump administration officials and staffers for Ted Cruz are finding that no one in the private sector will hire them because they are forever tainted by their former bosses' disgraceful behavior?

They're bullshit.

The Swamped site from Little Sis is a crowdsourced list of Trump's ugliest swamp-gators and the employers who put them in positions of power and authority despite their complicity with a fascist would-be dictator.

On The American Prospect, Alexander Sammon provides highlights of the swamp-to-industry pipeline.

Unsurprisingly, babykiller companies love Trump's gators. Jim Mattis? Board member for General Dynamics. Andrea Thompson? Northrop Grumman. HR McMaster? Zoom.

Rick Perry is back at Energy Transfer Partners, parleying his government service into a plum role in energetically rendering the planet unfit for human habitation.

Ryan Zinke's in fintech.

As punishment for his multitude of sins as the president's personal attorney, Donald McGahn has been sentenced to the Wearing of the White Shoes, threatening people on behalf of the clients of corporate law powerhouse Jones Day.

Dina Powell's back at Goldman Sachs and Fiona Hill's back is nestled snug at the Brookings Institute.

And lest we forget, the lying garbage-person Sean Spicer is a fellow at Harvard, and used his clout to blackball the truth-telling hero Chelsea Manning.

The swamp-to-industry pipeline was greased in the final hours of the Trump regime, when Trump signed an executive order rescinding Obama's rule that banned administration officials from immediately joining lobbying firms.

(Image: AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago A-Hole bill would make a secret technology into the law of the land

#15yrsago Hollywood’s MP loses the election — hit the road, Sam!

Stross and Doctorow’s “Appeals Court” free on Infinite Matrix

#15yrsago How William Gibson discovered science fiction

#10yrsago Douglas Adams’ online encylopedia tries to buy itself back from the BBC

#10yrsago Meet Obama’s new Solicitor General: the copyright industry’s Donald Verrilli Jr

#10yrsago Anti-capitalist rumba rave in a Spanish bank

#10yrsago No one will sell sodium thiopental to American executioners

#10yrsago Comics Code Authority is dead

#5yrsago Disney’s prized theme-park no-fly zone means it can’t use drones in its firework shows

#1yrago Bipartisan consensus is emerging on reining in Big Tech

#1yrago London cops announce citywide facial recognition cameras

#1yrago Canadian “protesters” at Huawei extradition hearing say they were tricked, thought they were in a music video

#1yrago The case for replacing air travel with high-speed sleeper trains

#1yrago Youtube’s Content ID has become the tool of choice for grifty copyfraudsters who steal from artists

#1yrago Wells Fargo’s ex-CEO will pay $17.5m in fines and never work in banking again (but he is still very, very rich)

#1yrago Howto: roleplay a suit of armor filled with bees

#1yrago Jamie Dimon is a (highly selective) socialist

#1yrago Majority of UK booze-industry revenues come from problem drinkers

#1yrago US insurers, sick of being gouged by Big Pharma, will develop cheap generics

#1yrago White nationalists planned to murder cops and pro-gun protesters in Virginia

#1yrago A sober look at kratom, a psychoactive plant that has many claimed benefits, and has also inspired a moral panic

#1yrago Microsoft employs a giant plush Clippy whose performer has a large Clippy tattoo

#1yrago Unauthorized Charcoal: GE fridges won’t dispense ice or water unless your filter authenticates as an official ($55!) component

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Late Stage Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 525 words (102594 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Friday's progress: 282 words (1077 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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