Property Rights in the Digital Paradigm

With the recent suspending of the accounts of multiple individuals on various social media sites including twitter, facebook, and youtube, many people are beginning to question the validity of this move, likening it unto an attack on free speech and a bold censorship. To the libertarian, this is a major area of concern and a critical evaluation is needed before any actions take place.

We must first establish the premise that government tends to gradually prey on our liberties more and more. We are like the frog in the boiling pot so to speak. If we assign government a small task, the scope of this task becomes larger over time, and we end up with more regulations and less liberties. Based on this premise, the goal that the libertarian should be aiming at is to extend free speech as far as possible without violating the non-aggression principle.

It is also important to realize how rights work as well. Rights are hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy is property rights. From property rights stems the freedom of speech and a whole range of other rights. Property rights not only allows the owner of the property to say what he pleases on the property, but it also gives him the power to use property such as billboards and signs to spread his message. In this way, property rights comes before free speech. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 12:00 EST - Details)

You can not come on to my property and say as you wish. I as the owner set the limits as to what can and can’t be said. Though I may allow you to say certain things, initially, you have no right to speech on my property. I must grant it to you. We can clearly see the superiority of property rights to free speech.

So how does all this apply to the digital paradigm? I will now begin exploring a term I have coined: “digital property rights”.

Many people use the argument that Facebook and Twitter, among other social media sites, are private companies and they hence have the right to pick and choose who can use their site. If one thinks about this, it can be likened unto businesses in the physical realm. For this analogy, I will be comparing social media sites to giant apartments.

If I were to rent an apartment, I would be given access to a certain area of property, but I’d simply be renting it, and so I still have to live within a certain set of rules set by the property owner. The apartment owner has laid out his terms in our contract. He could quite possibly charge me fees for various violations of the contract, whether it be a noise violation, a disturbance of peace, etc.

Now if we connect this to social media, accounts operate in this same way. The account user is entering the “digital property” of the site owner. The site owner ultimately has the rights to grant or revoke the right of speech to the user. It is his “digital property”, hence he sets the rules. We can think of account restrictions and temporary bans as fees charged to the tenant in the apartment for various violations of the contract. We can think of account terminations as evictions in the physical realm.

So where has this analogy lead us to and what implications does it have for the libertarian? For one thing, it outlines the importance of the voluntary contract, but beyond this, it shows how fundamental property rights are to the libertarian conscience. It seems that practically any issue can be solved through property rights, and this is certainly one of them. It can of course be applied to areas beyond just social media, including websites and domains.

Now a common objection to the ideas I have laid down would be that these social media sites have conspired with the government to ban certain people, and hence this is not private discrimination, but public discrimination. Though this argument may be convincing, it is important to never lose sight of our goal, which is the diminution of the scope of government. If we were to try and stop social media sites from taking such actions, it would bring in further government intervention, which is not a good means to our desired ends. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Check Amazon for Pricing.

Another objection that I have heard is that these various social media sites are “monopolies”. In assessing this claim, it is important to look at monopoly from an Austrian economist’s perspective. To the Austrian, monopoly is not when a certain firm controls the majority of an industry, but when it has been granted government privilege to do so. Luckily, there are still alternative routes to spread ideas on the internet.

The private industry is very important in protecting one’s freedoms because incentives for profit are directly linked to the satisfaction of the consumer. Some people think that it is wrong to criticize the censorship of certain social media sites, because they are private. But one can criticize a private company, yet still believe in its sovereignty. If this were not the case, we don’t even need private companies. The whole point of privatizing is to ensure greater consumer satisfaction.

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only way to increase the amount of choices in an industry to the greatest extent. With the consumer in control, we will ultimately see the fate of sites like Facebook and Twitter. If the consumer does not like their execution of censorship, they may protest the sites and boycott them. These same protocols are implemented by consumers in any industry. The consumer decides the fate of a company, and so if a firm is not doing what is right to please the consumer, they will either have to change their ways or liquidate. This is one of the many benefits of capitalism. Vote with your dollar!