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PRIVATE CENSORSHIP AND STRUCTURAL DOMINANCE: WHY SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS SHOULD HAVE OBLIGATIONS TO THEIR USERS UNDER FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2022

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Abstract

Contemporary liberal accounts of free expression are almost exclusively preoccupied with the permissible exercises of state power. Influenced by this framing, free expression guarantees under the ECHR, as well as the US and German Constitutions, focus on protecting a private sphere from state interference: what happens within that sphere is only of peripheral concern. This approach is deeply unsatisfactory, especially given the significant threats emanating from private social media platforms that shape the conditions under which individuals may express themselves online. The article argues that we should take private platforms seriously as a source of significant threats, without abandoning the distinction between private actors and the state. Private platforms that are generally open to the public should have obligations to uphold free speech in their contractual relationship to users under certain conditions: if they are structurally dominant, make arbitrary decisions or significantly impact a user's societal participation.

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Copyright © The Authors, 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

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Footnotes

*

John Thornley Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.

I am grateful to John Adentire, Shreya Atrey, Nick Barber, Will Bateman, Jeff King, Liora Lazarus, Ewan Smith and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on earlier drafts. Drafts of this paper were presented at the Bonavero Perspectives and the Oxford Working Papers in Constitutional Theory seminars – special thanks are due to all the participants for enlightening discussions.

References

1 “Conspiracy Theories Made Alex Jones Very Rich. They May Bring Him Down”, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/us/politics/alex-jones-business-infowars-conspiracy.html (last accessed 15 August 2022).

2 M. Isaac and K. Roose, “Facebook Bars Alex Jones, Louis Farrakhan and Others From Its Services”, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/technology/facebook-alex-jones-louis-farrakhan-ban.html (last accessed 15 August 2022).

3 These specific allegations are currently the subject of a defamation lawsuit; see J. Fortin, “Infowars Must Turn Over Internal Documents to Sandy Hook Families, Judge Rules”, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/12/us/alex-jones-infowars-lawsuit.html (last accessed 15 August 2022).

4 The paper uses “speech” and “expression” interchangeably, because nothing of consequence in the legal and philosophical discourse turns on the employed terms, see Schauer, F., “Free Speech on Tuesdays” (2015) 34 L. & Phil. 119, 123Google Scholar, Footnote 8.

5 D. Mill, “Freedom of Speech” in E.N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford 2018).

6 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 2nd ed. (London 1859), 33; whether that is empirically correct is debatable. See F. Schauer, “Social Epistemology, Holocaust Denial and the Post-Millian Calculus” in M. Herz and P. Molnar (eds.), The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses (Cambridge 2012), 129.

7 Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2.

8 E.M. Barendt, Freedom of Speech, 2nd ed. (Oxford 2016), 22.

9 “Facebook Deletes Accounts of German Anti-lockdown Group”, Deutsche Welle, available at https://www.dw.com/en/facebook-deletes-accounts-of-german-anti-lockdown-group/a-59206831 (last accessed 15 August 2022); “YouTube to Remove All Anti-vaccine Misinformation”, BBC News, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58743252 (last accessed 15 August 2022).

10 Mantouvalou, V., “I Lost my Job Over a Facebook Post – Was that Fair? Discipline and Dismissal for Social Media Activity” (2019) 35 I.J.C.C.L.I.R. 101, 5Google Scholar.

11 N.J. McBride, The Humanity of Private Law: Part II: Evaluation (Oxford 2019), ch. 11, 120.

12 A critique of liberal approaches along those lines is well established, see for instance the contributions of Anne M. Franks (137) and S. Chemaly (150) in S.J. Brison and K. Gelber (eds.), Free Speech in the Digital Age (Oxford 2019).

13 Barendt, Freedom of Speech, 2.

14 Brison and Gelber, Free Speech in the Digital Age; J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA 2001), 111–14; J. Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech (Cambridge, MA 2012); Schauer, “Social Epistemology”; R. Post, “Reconciling Theory and Doctrine in First Amendment Jurisprudence” in L.C. Bollinger and G.R. Stone (eds.), Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era (Chicago 2018); E. Heinze, Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship (Oxford 2016).

15 Gardbaum, S., “The ‘Horizontal Effect’ of Constitutional Rights” (2003) 102 Mich. L. Rev. 387, 404CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tushnet, M., “The Issue of State Action/Horizontal Effect in Comparative Constitutional Law” (2003) 1 I.C.O.N. 79Google Scholar.

16 Gardbaum, “Horizontal Effect”, 433.

17 Ibid., at 436.

18 See Articles 14 and 15 of Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on Certain Legal Aspects of Information Society Services, in particular Electronic Commerce, in the Internal Market (E-commerce Directive) (OJ 2000 L 178 p.1).

19 See e.g. Judgment of 23 March 2010, Google France v Louis Vuitton, Joined Cases C-236/08 to C-238/08, EU:C:2010:159; Judgment of 12 July 2011, L'Oreal and others v eBay, C-324/09, EU:C:2011:474; Judgment of 15 September 2016, Mc Fadden, C-484/14, EU:C:2016:689.

20 Mill, On Liberty, 22.

21 Ibid., at 145.

22 Ibid., at 147.

23 G. Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge 1988), 76, 127; J. Feinberg, Harm to Others, vol. 1 (Oxford 1984); Dworkin, R., “Sovereign Virtue Revisited” (2002) 113 Ethics 106, 113–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford 1971), 249.

25 J. Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford 1986), ch. 15.

26 C. McCrudden and J. King, “The Dark Side of Nudging: The Ethics, Political Economy, and Law of Libertarian Paternalism” [2015] Queen's University Belfast Law Research Paper No. 16. This is especially so given cognitive deficits and the power of inertia, which may require government assistance and intervention. See S. Conly, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Cambridge 2012).

27 C. Mackenzie, “Relational Autonomy, Normative Authority and Perfectionism” 39 Journal of Social Philosophy 512.

28 Mill, On Liberty, 104.

29 Ibid., at 150–51.

30 S.J. Brison, “Speech, Harm, and the Mind-Body Problem in First Amendment Jurisprudence” (1998) 4 Legal Theory 39; J. Gray, Mill on Liberty: A Defence, 2nd ed. (London 1996) 106; G. Scarre, Mill's On Liberty: A Reader's Guide (London 2007), 39.

31 See e.g. Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, in force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR), and Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as amended) (ECHR).

32 Waldron, Harm in Hate Speech, ch. 1.

33 Tsesis, A., “Dignity and Speech: The Regulation of Hate Speech in a Democracy” (2009) 44 Wake Forest L. Rev. 497Google Scholar.

34 R. Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (London 1977), 266–78, 364–68; R. Dworkin, “Foreword” in I. Hare and J. Weinstein (eds.), Extreme Speech and Democracy (Oxford 2009).

35 Post, R.C., “Racist Speech, Democracy, and the First Amendment” (1990) 32 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 267Google Scholar; Weinstein, J., “Participatory Democracy as the Central Value of American Free Speech Doctrine” (2011) 97 Va. L. Rev. 491Google Scholar.

36 Heinze, Hate Speech, 5.

37 Ibid., at 13.

38 Greene, A.R. and Simpson, R.M., “Tolerating Hate in the Name of Democracy” [2017] M.L.R. 746, 763CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Mill, On Liberty, 13.

40 From the more recent publications, see e.g. J. Skorupski, The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge 1998); D.O. Brink, “Mill's Liberal Principles and Freedom of Expression” in C.L. Ten (ed.), Mill's On Liberty: A Critical Guide (Cambridge 2008), 42; J. Riley, “Racism, Blasphemy, and Free Speech” in Ten (ed.), Mill's On Liberty, 62; J. Skorupski, Why Read Mill Today? (Abingdon 2006), 58; Cohen-Almagor, R., “J.S. Mill's Boundaries of Freedom of Expression: A Critique” (2017) 92 Royal Institute of Philosophy 56Google Scholar5.

41 Mill, On Liberty, 139.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., at 32.

45 Ibid., at ch. 2.

46 Ibid., at 7.

47 Raz, Morality of Freedom, 369.

48 Waldron, Harm in Hate Speech, 225–26, 232.

49 Schauer, “Social Epistemology”.

50 C. Edwin Baker, “Autonomy and Hate Speech” in Hare and Weinstein (eds.), Extreme Speech and Democracy, 143.

51 Ibid., at 143.

52 Ibid., at 142.

53 Ibid., at 143.

54 Heinze, Hate Speech, 113.

55 Greene and Simpson, “Tolerating Hate”, 765.

56 Baker, “Autonomy and Hate Speech”, 151.

57 This is a point conceded even by committed libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick, who accepts that inequities in the acquisition and transfer of property require wealth redistribution. See R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford 1974), 152–53, 230–31.

58 Gardbaum, “Horizontal Effect”, 459.

59 R. West, “The Limits of Process” in J.E. Fleming (ed.), Getting to the Rule of Law (New York 2011), 32, 35; M. Krygier, “Four Puzzles about the Rule of Law: Why? What? Where? And Who Cares?” in Fleming (ed.), Getting to the Rule of Law, 64, 89; J. King, “The Social Dimension of the Rule of Law” (Jurisprudence Discussion Group, Oxford, 24 May 2018), 26.

60 Raz, Morality of Freedom, ch. 15.

61 Ibid., at 413.

62 Ibid., at 417.

63 Ibid., at 4–5; J. Raz, Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics (Oxford 1994), 89, 141.

64 Raz, Morality of Freedom, 421, Footnote 1.

65 R. Dworkin, “Women and Pornography: Book Review of Only Words by Catherine A MacKinnon” (1993) New York Review of Books.

66 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 136–40; for a deeper exploration of Rawls views on socialism, see W.A. Edmundson, John Rawls: Reticent Socialist (Cambridge 2017).

67 A. Bhagwat, “Free Speech Categories in the Digital Age” in Brison and Gelber (eds.), Free Speech in the Digital Age, 88, 89–93.

68 Palomo Sanchez and others v Spain (2012) 54 E.H.R.R. 24.

69 Ibid., at [76].

70 Appleby and others v United Kingdom (2003) 37 E.H.R.R. 38, at [50].

71 Ibid., at [40]–[48].

72 Ibid., at [47].

73 Ibid.

74 Marsh v Alabama 326 U.S. 501 (1946).

75 Ibid., at 506.

76 Food Employees v Logan Valley Plaza, Inc. 391 U.S. 308 (1968).

77 West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette 319 U.S. 624 (1943), 633.

78 Lloyd Corp. v Tanner 407 U.S. 551 (1972).

79 Hudgens v National Labor Relations Board (No. 74-773) 424 U.S. 507 (1976).

80 Pruneyard Shopping Center v Robins 447 U.S. 74 (1980).

81 Manhattan Community Access Corp. v Halleck 139 S. Ct. 1921 (2019), 1928.

82 Ibid., Dissenting Opinion of Justice Sotomayor, 1936.

83 CBS v Democratic National Committee 412 U.S. 94 (1973), 121.

84 Gardbaum, “Horizontal Effect ”, 391.

85 Ibid., at 458.

86 Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvR 400/51, 15 January 1958, BVerfGE 7, 198 (Lüth).

87 Gardbaum, “Horizontal Effect”, 396, 404.

88 Waldron, Harm in Hate Speech, 26.

89 F.F. Schauer, Free Speech: A Philosophical Enquiry (Cambridge 1982), 86.

90 Heinze, Hate Speech.

91 Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvR 699/06, 22 February 2011, BVerfGE 128, 226, [46]–[48], [53].

92 Ibid., at [59], subsequently confirmed in Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvQ 25/15, 18 July 2020, NJW 2015, 2485, at [6]–[7].

93 “Global Social Media Overview July 2020”, available at https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-july-global-statshot (last accessed 15 August 2022).

94 “Social Media Fact Sheet”, available at https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/ (last accessed 15 August 2022); “Digital 2019: United States of America”, available at https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2019-united-states-of-america (last accessed 15 August 2022).

95 German Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvQ 42/19, 22 May 2019, unpublished.

96 Ibid., at [21]. For a more detailed account, see S. Theil, “The Online Harms White Paper: Comparing the UK and German Approaches to Regulation” [2019] J.M.L. 1.

97 Dommett, K. and Power, S., “The Political Economy of Facebook Advertising: Election Spending, Regulation and Targeting Online” (2019) 90 The Political Quarterly 257CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 Facebook, WhatsApp and FB Messenger; Instagram is sixth; see “Digital 2020: Germany”, available at https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-germany (last accessed 15 August 2022).

99 J. Mander, “Internet Users Have Average of 7 Social Accounts”, available at https://blog.globalwebindex.com/chart-of-the-day/internet-users-have-average-of-7-social-accounts/ (last accessed 15 August 2022).

100 Although the latter practice is not permitted on some platforms, it is tolerated and encouraged by others; see “How to Manage Multiple Accounts”, available at https://help.twitter.com/en/managing-your-account/managing-multiple-twitter-accounts (last accessed 15 August 2022), and “Can I Create Multiple Facebook Accounts?”, available at https://www.facebook.com/help/975828035803295 (last accessed 15 August 2022).

101 See e.g. Higher Regional Court Munich, 5 U 2472/09, 14 December 2012, ZIP 2013, 558, a civil case revolving around Kirch Media Group, which sued Deutsche Bank after an executive questioned their creditworthiness in an interview; the case was eventually settled. See “Deutsche Bank Settles Dispute over Kirch Media Group Bankruptcy”, Deutsche Welle, available at https://p.dw.com/p/1BCNB (last accessed 15 August 2022).

102 Notable exceptions include the loss of certain civil rights, for instance the right to stand for public office, for offences against the state.

103 Oxford English Dictionary, “Arbitrary”.

104 G. Postema, “Fidelity in Law's Commonwealth” in L.M. Austin and D. Klimchuk (eds.), Private Law and the Rule of Law (Oxford 2014), 18.

105 King, “Social Dimension”, 19–20.

106 W.A. Galston, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge 2002).

107 Mill, On Liberty, ch. 2; Cohen-Almagor, “J.S. Mill's Boundaries”, 576; for a contemporary defence, see Gray, Mill on Liberty, ch. 5.

108 Raz, J., “Free Expression and Personal Identification” (1991) 11 O.J.L.S. 303, 306Google Scholar.

109 Ibid., at 321, 324.

110 Ibid., at 323.

111 Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvR 3080/09, 11 April 2018, BVerfGE 148, 267.

112 Ibid., at [45], [46].

113 Ibid., at [55].

114 Ibid., at [46].

115 Ibid., at [58].

116 Ibid., at [58].

117 Barendt, Freedom of Speech, 13.

118 Waldron, J., “A Right to do Wrong” (1981) 92 Ethics 21CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Herstein, O.J., “Defending the Right to do Wrong” (2012) 31 Law and Philosophy 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

119 Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, 266–78, 364–68.

120 Baker, “Autonomy and Hate Speech”, 146.

121 S.V. Shiffrin, Speech Matters (Princeton 2014).

122 T. M. Scanlon, “A Theory of Freedom of Expression” in T. M. Scanlon (ed.), The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2003), 15.

123 Barendt, Freedom of Speech, 16.

124 German Federal Constitutional Court, 1 BvR 879/12, 27 August 2019, unpublished.

125 Ibid., at [11].

126 Ibid., at [13].

127 Ibid., at [12].

128 “April 2022 Overview: Infowars.com”, available at https://www.similarweb.com/website/infowars.com/ (last accessed 15 August 2022).

129 J. Nicas, “Alex Jones Said Bans Would Strengthen Him: He Was Wrong”, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/04/technology/alex-jones-infowars-bans-traffic.html (last accessed 15 August 2022).

130 This is a salient point particularly in the ongoing debate about the exclusion of former US President Donald Trump from mainstream social media platforms.

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