Twitter, Trump and the Private Company Fallacy

Friday 15 January 2021, 12:23 AM AEST - 1 week ago

In the wake of the coordinated deplatformings of President Trump, his associates, and various conservatives from all manner of internet platforms and services, a common line of justification has been that these internet firms are merely private companies, and hence free to do whatever they like. Of course, no firms are truly autonomous in the modern state. From COVID to civil rights, how firms can do business, and with whom, is very much a state concern.

But the censorship apologists are right in a narrow sense, at least under our current laws: firms like Twitter are acting within their rights when they kick someone off. But the private company line is worth interrogating. It implies a kind of anarcho-capitalist paradise, where firms are sovereign and the sole masters of their own destinies.

CoinDesk columnist Nic Carter is partner at Castle Island Ventures, a public blockchain-focused venture fund based in Cambridge, Mass. He is also the co-founder of Coin Metrics, a blockchain analytics startup.

Of course, its curious in the extreme that mainstream liberals – historically, an ideology concerned about corporate overreach – are now fond of libertarian talking points. But leaving aside their oddly convenient newfound affinity for anarcho-capitalist principles, the concept of a private company deserves interrogation.

Clearly, companies arent independent of the state. They exist in a distinct legal and political context. They are obliged to follow local laws. The claim that private organizations have total discretion over whom they do business doesnt stack up in America. My local gym, closed by mandate, is a testament to that, as is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now, conservatives or other individuals with disfavored political views are not a protected class. But the strong form of corporate independence is nonetheless vacuous. The state has, on many occasions, sought to determine who companies can and cannot do business with. These protected classes change frequently too, with new entrants being added to the list all the time.

But lets continue to entertain the idea that these internet firms are acting in a manner that is entirely consistent with the letter and spirit of U.S. laws. Could it be the case they are nonetheless beholden to the state, and hence, not private in a meaningful sense?

Consider for a moment how you would act if you were a foreign government and all of your citizens used social media apps ...

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