Tyranny is not always accomplished by military conquest and violent repression. The most sophisticated and enduring forms of tyranny do not signal its tyrannical intent directly but veil it with pretences to compassion, security and morality. At the very least, sophisticated tyranny posits itself as a benevolent force which is openly tyrannical only because of clear existential necessity or some critical moral obligation. Secular democracies around the world are currently experiencing systemic changes which are arguably geared toward sophisticated tyranny. In this article I focus on the question of selective denial of service by social media, digital payment and internet hosting companies.
If a cake shop refuses to bake me a wedding cake, because of political or religious beliefs of the owner, I can go on Facebook or Twitter, post it to a large group or a hashtag, and thereby let virtually all interested people know about my experience. Those people can then decide whether to support or boycott the business. Conversely, if I were banned from Facebook and Twitter I could not achieve the same result by baking a cake or even emailing my friends about it, nor would I have any other means of communicating with the general public, with strangers who possibly share my values. The only three possibilities of mass communication would be to ask others to communicate on my behalf (and possibly get banned themselves), pitch my story to a mass media company and maybe, just maybe, get published, or pay for an nation-wide advertising campaign. Now imagine if I were a grassroots political party or a politician who already has millions of followers on social media; my capacity to effectively communicate with my political base would be instantaneously destroyed by being denied service by the social media platforms.
Social media, digital payment services and internet hosting have become essential to effective political communication, especially at the grassroots level. Denial of these services for any lawful speech would radically disadvantage any political movement with respect to other parties. This would amount to political censorship by the back door, making providers of these media-services unique in the context of free speech and therefore different to other private companies. Denial of service by social media, digital payment or internet hosting companies could independently cause a major disruption to political communication of the blocked demographic, but if the service providers acted collectively against a specific target (as was the case with Alex Jones) they could completely bar that target from being part of the political discourse.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12, states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. The term “arbitrary” is taken to mean extrajudicial reasons. Article 19 makes this point even stronger: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Social media and internet hosting services are now indispensable to normal political communication. Refusal to provide these services for purposes of engaging in lawful speech is political censorship by the back door. Inability or a threat of being unable to impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers is a violation of human rights and bad for us all even if you despise the person being censored.