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Big Tech Wants to Own You

How major social media companies threaten our most basic freedoms.

It is no secret that the dominant social media companies now monetize what is not theirs: our personal data. In none of the agreements between social media users and these companies is there a transfer of property. Yes, users (and consumers in general) often agree to relinquish some privacy in exchange for a service or a good. But privacy and property are completely different. They should not be conflated.

Privacy is at the core of who we are as free and sovereign individuals. An individual is composed of many attributes. Some are public and open, others we keep to ourselves. All of them define who we are.

Apparently, there is great commercial value in understanding our attributes and then using what is learned. Sometimes this is in our interest, but many times it is not.

In the digital world, companies dissect us and package us for commercial gain without compensating us—and too often without our consent. That is not merely an invasion of our privacy, but in actuality is a theft of our personal property.

In any free society, respect for the individual is predicated upon his or her sovereignty. Our most important property right is our right to ourselves. If we lose ownership of ourselves, we become the property of others.

Social media companies, and other platforms that sell or monetize our data without permission are appropriating aspects of the sovereign individuals who are their users, and it is a violation of our rights.

But selling or monetizing your personal information isn’t the only way tyrannical tech seeks to own you.

In 2019, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg explicitly said, “We are a tech company, not a media company.”

He later gave Congress a more nuanced answer:

“I view us as a tech company because the primary thing we do is build technology and products,” Zuckerberg testified. “I agree that we’re responsible for the content, but we don’t produce the content. I think when people ask us if we’re a media company or a publisher, my understanding of what they’re really getting at is do we feel responsible for the content on our platform.”

“The answer to that, I think, is clearly yes,” he continued. “But I don’t think that’s incompatible with fundamentally at our core being a technology company.”

Zuckerberg’s view of his company raises a crucial question: is Facebook a technology company that promotes free speech and exists as a public forum that should be held exempt from liability in connection with the content posted on its platform? Or is it a publisher with the right to edit content at its discretion, whatever the methodology—but must then assume responsibility and liability for that content?

To say you assume responsibility for content, and then declare yourself exempt from liability in connection with it is an absurd contradiction. An assumption of liability is an indispensable component of statement of responsibility. It is the price one pays for being able to take credit for something, or to exercise control over it.

As troubled as I am regarding Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy, as shown by the contradictions between his words and Facebook’s policies and practices, it is even more troubling to me that many of my fellow Zuckerberg critics—both in the technology community and in the progressive movement–hold a very different conception of free speech than I do. Their view of the range of speech that should be protected is, unfortunately, much narrower.

Essentially, many of them believe technology should be used to censor content, according to criteria established by whoever controls the technology company. And today, most of the technology companies handling our content have decided to develop these criteria in partnership with those operating on a kind of mob mentality that sees dissent as something that is dangerous, something to be repressed.

A mere platform or “tech company” would not take it upon itself to do this. But publishers would and do, usually in the name of being “responsible.” Unfortunately, almost all of today’s technology is developed under the auspices of a controlling authority acting as a censor.

This would be acceptable—if they acknowledged themselves as publishers. But Zuckerberg, during his congressional testimony, walked that not-even-remotely-fine line for a reason. Many of today’s tech companies, doing the bidding of the various mobs that want to dictate what speech is allowed, wield the power they have according to their own perspective on what is right, just, and moral. They anoint themselves as the modern version of Torquemada. Yes, I said it: It is an Inquisition. These tech companies, and the mobs whose favor they curry, seek a strategy to dehumanize, delegitimize, and digitally exterminate those with whom they disagree.

Those in academia are often told they must “publish or perish.” If platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others dared to verbalize what they were doing in the form of an expression, an appropriate expression might be: “If we decide not to publish you, you will virtually perish. You will be erased.”

These companies really aren’t “social media.” They are not public forums. An actual public forum respects the First Amendment, in spirit, and does not monetize content or personal data. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tyrannical tech giants are private companies operating opaquely in the digital domain, exempt from discovery or accountability, gifted by Congress with a liability exemption that allows them to do whatever they want. Including deplatforming you.

Rabbi Hillel said, “that which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

If you want the right to speak, to express your ideas and opinions, it would be despicable to you if someone prevented you from doing so. You would not want someone else to persecute, dehumanize, deplatform or digitally exterminate you.

Such behavior is abhorrent to the ideal of free speech. It is unfathomable that, in the twenty-first century, “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it,” has, somehow mutated into, “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will digitally exterminate you if you dare try to say it.”

A true public forum eschews censorship of any kind. Freedom of expression, and the exchange of knowledge that goes along with it, can flourish only in an environment where there is no authoritative entity or controlling party, where one speaks by right, not by permission.

Jeffrey Wernick is strategic investor in Parler. He is also an early bitcoin adopter, advocate and acquirer. Additionally he is a seed investor and an angel investor. Wernick is a frequently invited lecturer and speaker including at his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

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