randombio.com | political commentary
Sunday, August 27, 2017

Reciprocity and censorship

How do people defend themselves when big corporations interfere in cultural struggles?

D o unto others. An eye for an eye. Throughout history, morality has been defined in terms of reciprocity. Yet it can also be defined in terms of absolute principles: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not chew gum with thy mouth open, and so forth.

In many ways these two versions of right and wrong are contradictory. If it's wrong to kill, what do you do when a pitchfork-carrying mob comes to kill you just because of a few teensy little experiments with reanimation? Sure, you can rationalize your way out, in effect making an exception. Your principle becomes thou can kill the bastard if he's trying to kill you.

But somehow that lacks a certain elegance. We recognize that once you start making exceptions, morality turns into a gray area. Defining it in such stark principles is a challenge. Maybe that's why humans invented the concept of a formal legal system bound to natural law.

Robert Nozick and many others recognized this as a compelling reason for a minimalist government that defines a set of natural rights that it agrees to defend. It uses its power to stop people from violating each other's rights to whatever's on the list: say, life, liberty, free marijuana, porn, sci-fi for everybody, whatever it may be.

The idea is that the only legitimate function of government is to protect our natural rights, regardless of who tries to violate them: individuals, foreign powers, or corporations.

The problem is that people don't really want to be treated fairly. They all want special privileges. They want the government to oppress their enemies, steal their resources, and give them free stuff. They all come up with ideologies to justify it in their own minds, but what it boils down to is they just want the other guy's stuff.

So, what about freedom of speech? Libertarians, of course, believe it's absolute. The old conundrum of fire in a crowded theater is no problem for us. Indeed, if there's a fire and you're in a crowded theater, libertarians believe it's only polite to mention it. It's common courtesy.

What do we do, then, when big Internet companies start censoring us?

First let me say something positive. To my knowledge, neither Barnes & Noble nor Amazon censor their books. Corporate bosses are entitled to their opinions, and if they don't force them down my throat, I'll continue to praise them and do business with them.

But when industry abuses its customers, it dies. The fate of Hechinger's, a big hardware chain, was typical. You'd wander through the store, unable to find anything, and when you by some miracle found a sales clerk they'd crack their chewing gum at you and pretend not to know where it was. Or they'd make up some smart-assed answer, telling you, in effect, to piss off. It wasn't just that they didn't care; they didn't want customers at all.

I never used Cloudfare, since I got out of sysadminning a long time ago, but the idea that a service you could become dependent on would pull the rug away from you for purely political reasons would have made me insist adamantly to management that they cannot be trusted and we must not use them under any circumstances.

The big Internet companies didn't just start thinking about censoring the Internet after the morality play in Charlottesville. Before they glommed onto ‘white supremacists,’ they were glomming onto fake news. They were trying out various justifications for what they wanted to do. For the Silicon moguls Charlottesville was an amazingly fortuitous event. It's a well tested strategy: start with the most despised and disreputable groups, those whose ideas are indefensible. The next step is to link them with whatever ideas they wish to suppress. The flag-bearing in Virginia made that convenient—almost too convenient. Now it's just a matter of how far they can push it.

It leaves me pining for the days of big black rotary telephones. Unlike my Android device, which is just asking for a date with a sledge hammer*, they always worked, they never downloaded ads and useless new features, they never tried to steal my personal information, and they never tried to tell me what I'm allowed to think.

The guys over at reason.com think there's no problem. Once companies start acting like finger-wagging aunts instead of content-neutral utilities, Google, Paypal, Facebook, and the rest of the SJW-run companies, says Reason, will just be replaced by companies that treat their customers with respect, and good riddance to bad company.

But that might take ten or twenty years. And here's the thing: when corporations take sides in political battles, doing business with them becomes an act of politics, and they lose the loyalty of their customers. The side they oppress hates them, of course. But the people whose side they take will realize they're in bed with a monster that has no sense of right or wrong; sooner or later it will turn on them as well.

Governments are no different, and they too can lose customer loyalty if they take sides in cultural struggles. That is the long arc of the principle of reciprocity. But the problem with reciprocity is that nobody wins.

* Actually I would not use a sledge hammer. I am far more dangerous with a screwdriver and a soldering iron, as my last two LCD monitors would attest.

aug 27, 2017; last edited aug 29, 2017, 8:49 am

See also

Silicon valley's declaration of war
Big Internet companies have decided to fight fascism with more fascism.

Argumentation in the Internet-driven world
Let the bastards get their nose under the tent on just one issue you don't care much about, and the next thing you know there's no freedom of speech at all.

Censoring the internet would be bad for science
Liberals are agitating for Google to censor what they call “fake news.” Doing so would be a catastrophe.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
Name and address
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