The Solution to Mass Corporate Censorship is Software Freedom

"They're a private company, they can do what they want."

"These companies need to stop censoring free speech. We need an Internet Bill of Rights."

How do we reconcile these two seemingly valid but potentially contradictory statements? On the one hand, it's true that companies like YouTube and Facebook have built their own platforms, meaning they have every right to control what happens on their platforms. They paid for the servers that process queries against their databases; they voluntarily exchanged their money for the labor that wrote their frontend JavaScript. On the other hand, it seems intuitively true that censorship which betrays a clear double-standard is a bad thing, such as when it is conservatives and libertarians who are primarily targeted, while left-leaning and mainstream outlets (but I repeat myself) get a pass for the same or worse "offenses". Shouldn't "we" do something? And by "we", what is usually meant is "Uncle Sam's Guns".

In typical libertarian fashion, I'm here to tell you that the best and most peaceful solution to the problem is, as usual, capitalism, not Uncle Sam's Guns. That is, to exercise your right to simply use another platform… vote with your dollar, or in this case, your clicks. I know as well as anyone does that due to network effects, it's a challenge to get friends and family members to try a new platform. It's darn near impossible. But, it has happened before, and could happen again if the reasons are compelling enough. There was once a time when MySpace was the preferred social network, and Facebook was just a goofy way to meet other people at your university. Before "Googling" was a thing, we all searched the world wide web with AltaVista. So, contrary to common opinion, I do not believe these companies are monopolies just because they're big. The only real monopolies are the ones imposed by the state.

But even if using alternate platforms is a viable option, it's important to realize that jumping to another comercially-controlled platform will inevitably run up against the same challenges. There are already many smaller platforms currently competing with the social media companies. And, due to recent missteps of the big players, they are growing faster than ever before. But eventually, especially as a company grows and becomes an entrenched part of the cultural milieu, someone will post something that the company controlling the platform doesn't like… perhaps many people will post such things, and steer the whole platform in a direction the company doesn't like. And that company will, again, be in their rights to "massage" the promotion of such content with a secret algorithm.

So similar to our woes with governments, the ultimate solution isn't just a new platform that can be controlled from the top "if only the right people were in control"… the ultimate solution would have to do an end-run around all the possible problems that a controlling company could introduce to their platform. Instead, what we need is a platform which acts more like our very right to free speech, in that it cannot be taken away by a central authority. When you speak, no one has the right to silence you with violence… the air cannot hold back your words, and any violent attempt to silence you is an affront to your God-given negative liberties. But at the same time, you do not have the right to have your voice broadcast on someone else's platform… because to enforce such a right would be an affront to the platform owner's God-given negative liberties. So we need a platform that acts like the air, and does not judge or alienate the rights of the person who is making waves, rather it simply conveys the waves out into the world, leaving the recipients to think and judge for themselves the merit of the message being conveyed. And like air, such a platform would necessarily be uncontrolled by a central authority.

Who in their right mind would try to build a software platform that they cannot control and therefore profit from? I'm certainly about as capitalist as they come and believe in the power of the profit motive and that everyone is entitled to the fruits of their own labor. Well it may be a surprise, but such platforms not only exist, but they exist all around us: you're using many right now. Such platforms are called "free software". I don't mean zero-cost "freeware", or "free-as-in-free-beer" software as it's known. Rather, this is "free-as-in-speech" software that respects the user's liberty, rather than enforcing the developer's "intellectual property". At least, not in the same way that traditional proprietary software does. (The nuance of free software licensing is beyond the scope of this post, but is certainly not lost on me.) And, those who develop free software can and do profit from it without truly owning it, as we'll see... similar to how a translator can make a living without owning any of the languages they have mastered.

At this point in internet history, you've likely already heard of Linux -- perhaps the most iconic and ubiquitous free software project. It's a computer operating system, like Windows or Mac OS, used by some nerd that you know. But you might not realize that it is fundamentally different than those OSes in a very important way, and largely because of that difference it is powering the vast majority of the internet you know - including the server which transferred this essay to your web browser. That important difference is that its creators do not wish to control the way it is used: they develop it so that it may be used by others (and of course themselves) freely and without the same "licensing" restrictions that encumber proprietary software. Linux, along with a whole suite of additional free software, is at the heart of the servers in Google, Facebook, and Amazon's datacenters, and developers at all three companies earn a salary contributing to the code base of Linux and those other free software projects.

Importantly, their entire software stack is not free for anyone to use: most companies use a blend of free and proprietary software, and they enforce their "intellectual property" over the proprietary bits using Uncle Sam's Guns. But you could, with no restrictions aside from your time and skills, take much of the identical software stack used by these big players, and build your own similar network infrastructure, replacing their proprietary software components with your own. That's right, through the magic (or really just logic, as we'll see) of software freedom, you can use software developed by Google against them. In that regard, the labor, paid for by those big players and contributed to their software stack, can be multiplied infinitely.

Let me reiterate that point: in the software world, labor can be multiplied infinitely. Compare that to the labor that goes into creating something physical like a pint of beer: that beer can't be multiplied infinitely. The labor behind that pint of beer can only produce that pint of beer, but the labor behind a piece of software can produce countless instances of the software. How is this possible? What makes software different than beer? Hopefully it's obvious by now: the important and oft-overlooked concept that makes free software not just possible, but also extremely successful, is the concept of economic scarcity. Or more accurately, the lack thereof.

The reason that software can be economically non-scarce but beer cannot, is that beer is a real thing but software is just an idea. Yes, software is represented in various physical forms such as the binary code that your computer's CPU is executing right now. But the binary code is not the "software", it is just a representation of the software… the software is the idea: the logical flow of the program's execution, the maze of state-space the program's memory management routines navigate, and most importantly the goals that the software is achieving all exist as in the developers' and users' minds but are nowhere to be found in the computer itself.

Beer also has ideas associated with it: the recipe, the process, the name. But when you buy a beer, you are buying a physical thing, not the idea: you're paying for a copy of the idea, embedded in the proportions of water, ethanol, residual maltose, lupulins, and proteins present in your beer glass. Similarly, when you "buy" software, you are not buying the idea: you are again paying for a copy of the idea, in the form of the physical bits (ones and zeroes) being set in a particular order on your preexisting hardware. So really what you're paying for when you buy either beer or software is the fair market value of having that thing copied: it just happens to be that copying the idea of beer into physical form is much more expensive than copying the software into physical form. Due to technological innovation, the cost of copying everything, including beer, constantly drops - but the cost of copying software and other "intellectual property" is so low as to be trivial. That is why we have imaginary legal constructs like software licenses and patents - to artificially prop up the price of copying software so that it seems like a physically scarce good. So every purchase is the purchase of the copy of an idea, and you cannot buy the idea itself... because to buy implies taking control of a thing. Ideas, unlike things, want to be free, and cannot be controlled.

In fact, it is this essential attribute of ideas - that they want to be free - which lies at the heart of our right to free speech. If ideas cannot be controlled or owned by any person or group of people and any attempt to do so violates the speaker's negative liberties, then those same ideas cannot be stopped using Uncle Sam's Guns. In the same manner that a developer who assigns a permissive free software license to their software cannot control how many copies of the software exist nor what those copies are used for, so too a person who speaks (or sings, or illustrates) an idea cannot control the recipients of the idea without violating their negative liberties. (Though making an argument against intellectual property isn't the goal of this essay, I should have known brushing against the topic was inevitable. Indeed, solving the censorship issue at hand is impossible if society continues embracing the concept.)

So, it can be concluded, that in order to not have our speech censored or controlled, logically we must use a platform that itself cannot be censored or controlled. That is why the only ultimate solution to corporate - or government - censorship is to embrace software freedom: because free software cannot be centrally controlled.

Here I'll provide some resources to that end. (Note: I'll try to keep a list of open-source tech that I like and use updated over on the links page.)

The inspiration for this essay is the LBRY protocol, which aims to be a feature-complete media marketplace that is fully decentralized. So while there are other platforms which are taking aim at YouTube and many are decentralized to a certain degree, LBRY is the one that I hope grows into the de facto standard. Another similar project is OpenBazaar, which is a decentralized marketplace for physical goods.

And of course I would be amiss to not mention Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are for the most part decentralized and are themselves the inspiration for LBRY and OpenBazaar.

If you want to set your own personal computer free, start using a free operating system such as Linux or FreeBSD. If you do have to stick with Windows or Mac, at the very least start using free & open source alternatives to common desktop programs whenever possible (which will make the transition to Linux easier later).

And since "the cloud" is just code for "someone else's computer", if you want to be in control of your own data, check out privately-hostable clouds like Nextcloud. Or, just store your data on a hard drive that you own. Sometimes there's no school like the old school.

If we want to be in control of our future, it's essential that we start taking control of our computers and other devices. We all have them in our pockets, after all.

So back to those opening statements. How do we reconcile the two? Well regarding the first, "They're a private company, they can do what they want," this statement is true unless they are a company that is developing a free software platform. In that case, they can't do what they want, if the thing they want is to control the way others use their software and/or platform. And I don't mean "can't" in the legal sense... I mean it is literally impossible for them to control free software: thanks to the phenomenon called "forking" (i.e. dissident developers making a full, independent copy of a software project), once software is set free, it will always be free. As for "These companies need to stop censoring free speech. We need an Internet Bill of Rights," well the US already has an Internet Bill of Rights. It's called "The Bill of Rights". And while companies shouldn't censor speech, they will be able to - and will be within their legal rights to - as long as they're in control of their platform and "intellectual property". So the way to get companies to stop censoring speech is to exercise your right to use free software. Statements reconciled.

An aside: There is an age-old question in the free software world: "Is free software socialist or capitalist?" (or alternately, socialist or libertarian, though that wouldn't make for a precisely correct dichotomy.) I will once and for all put an end to the debate: the correct answer, when you see the role that the concept of scarcity plays in understanding it, is that it is both. More accurately, it is socialist but not in contradiction with capitalism. That is to say, one can be fully capitalist in regard to scarce goods, and simultaneously fully socialist in regard to non-scarce ones... in fact that's the only non-self-contradictory position to hold. Ideas can and should be socialized, i.e. owned by everyone collectively and therefore no one, while physically scarce things can and should be capitalized, i.e. owned by individuals or freely-associated groups. Why is it, then, that the most immediate temptation that confronts us when we have access to Uncle Sam's Guns is to do exactly the opposite of this? Our laws seem to decree, in direct violation of the laws of economics and physics, that there shall be an infinite supply of scarce goods and a finite supply of non-scarce ones... and anyone who acts out of the belief that these laws are immoral or that they contradict natural law shall be ostracized or thrown in a cage.

Modified Wednesday, March 09, 2022