Facebook and Twitter have been banning a lot of conservatives and anti-social justice activists recently, like Paul Joseph Watson, Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin), Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones. This has commonly been called “censorship” by them and others. But in this essay, I will argue that this is not censorship. It is something fundamentally different from censorship: moderation.
Censorship is always bad. Moderation can be good or bad. But even when it is bad, irrational and/or biased, it should not be regulated by law.
What is Censorship? What is Moderation?
According to Dictionary.com, a censor is “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.”
“Suppressing” here means “suppressing by using the force of the government.” That is, this is the government punishing citizens and/or confiscating their property (the banned materials in question.)
This is fundamentally different than a citizen regulating the speech of another on his property, as a condition of using it. If someone comes into your house and starts denouncing your wife or mother as a slut, you are within your rights to demand that he leave and to assert your property rights by the force of the police. If you and an opponent have been invited to a debate on abortion, and your opponent, or someone in the crowd, starts screaming about how you’re just privileged and your view is invalid, that person can be asked to leave and forced out if necessary. If someone is continually talking loudly during a movie, again, the theater is within its rights to have that person removed.
These are all forms of moderation: the regulation of speech by a property owner as a condition of using his property. But censorship, on the other hand, is the violation of property rights: two consenting parties are choosing to interact, say by selling and buying a book, and the government is imposing itself by using force to stop that voluntary transaction.
This fundamental difference, between upholding and violating property rights–between maintaining voluntary transactions and destroying voluntary transactions–means that we must be very careful to separate the concept of censorship from that of moderation. Even though they may look alike, superficially, with someone saying “You can’t say that,” they are not the same at all. One is a citizen (or group of citizens) saying, “You can’t say that, because you are using my property to do so, and I do not consent to that use of my property.” The other is the government saying, “You can’t say that, or else we will take your property or imprison you.” One is pro-property rights, the other is anti-property rights. One is an exercise of freedom, the other is a violation of freedom.
Calling what Facebook or Twitter does “censorship,” is like calling a demand that someone leave your property a “robbery” of that person. It makes no sense.
The “Public Square” Argument
A very common argument for getting the government involved to stop social media companies from “censoring”–i.e. moderating–users, is to assert that these companies have become so popular that they are now essential to dialogue in society and should be considered a “public space.” Being a public space means that moderation by the companies is tantamount to censorship–so the argument goes.
This is pretty much the argument that socialists make about businesses: Once a factory or other workplace is used by a bunch of workers, it becomes a “public space” for “social production” and should be controlled democratically by “society.”
The errors in the “public square” argument and the socialist argument are the same: That a private business is successful and popular does not erase the fact that it was still the efforts of the business owner(s) that made the business possible in the first place. It is still properly theirs to control. Justice demands that users be grateful to the owner(s) for the opportunities that they made possible, not forcibly punish them for their efforts by expropriation of their property.
No amount of success in a business can erase the fact that it was the owners of the business who are ultimately responsible for the effort and money that made it a success. Without at least de facto property rights in the products of their thought, money and effort, no justice and no human well-being are possible. If individuals cannot control and dispose of their products, free from the arbitrary expropriation of others, people can’t plan ahead. If people can’t plan ahead, they can’t invest and produce wealth.
Services like Facebook and Twitter–or like the next big thing to come along–won’t exist if you shackle the innovators and take away their ability to control and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Why would I exert the huge effort required to produce the next big social media platform, if control will be taken away from me as soon it becomes “too successful”? Why should I want to pour my heart and soul into a creation that will end up being a mediocre, government-run “public square”?
If you want great innovations to continue, you need to leave the innovators free to innovate and to control the product of their innovations. This is necessary, not only to keep the incentives to innovate strong, but also to make innovations feasible at all. Many innovators produce even better things by building on their past innovations. This is virtually impossible, if their past innovations are now government-controlled “public squares.” They are stopped from experimentation and improvement by the binding will of a huge mass of users, “stakeholders” and interest groups. Their creations thus become stagnant, wasteful and mediocre, like the VA in America, or the NHS in the UK.
At best, such stifled innovators can hope to sit as oligarchs in a government-controlled system. Rather than innovating to stay on the cutting edge, they can sit on their past creations and lobby the government to keep competitors out. The government will likely oblige, since their platform is now an officially sanctioned “public space.” Who needs potentially “dangerous” or “subversive” competitors upsetting the apple cart?
What About Bad Behavior By Innovators?
So what should happen if someone like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey pursues policies with his business that you and many others think are wrong? For example, I have many strong criticisms of Facebook and Twitter. I disapprove of their lack of clear rules about what gets someone banned, as well as their arbitrary and politically biased banning practices. I think Twitter was wrong to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Tommy Robinson, Meghan Murphy and Sargon of Akkad. I think Facebook was wrong to ban Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and Tommy Robinson. I think YouTube was wrong to put Tommy Robinson’s channel in restricted mode.
But none of these bad actions is censorship, and none of them erase the fact that the owners of these companies are ultimately responsible for the existence and benefits of the companies. None of this removes their rights to control their property. When we object to their actions, we have the right to criticize, to raise awareness, to move to other platforms, or to start our own platforms. But we do not have the right to commandeer their platforms using the government. We do not have the right to institute an “Internet Bill of Rights,” because such a law would conflict with the actual rights of the owners of the companies. 
Even when payment processors like Stripe and MasterCard pressure for the banning of certain figures, that doesn’t justify government action. If it is necessary to use other payment processors, or even to start new ones, so be it. This is possible. It can be done and has been done. When you get the government involved, you violate the rights of the owners of private companies. When you get the government involved, you make existing businesses more entrenched and stagnant. 
If you think arbitrary bans, political bias and other bad behavior are bad when private companies do it, what do you think it will be like when the government controls the internet and does it? With private companies, you can join an alternative or start your own. With the government, there will likely be no alternative. (And anyone who thinks the government will be objective and unbiased is–at best–naively unaware of the many state television stations in history. Indeed, one need look no further than the UK’s own BBC.)
The rampant use of the term “censorship” for what private companies do is a serious problem. It conflates voluntary relationships with governmental force, and demolishes the clear idea of property rights in people’s minds. What Facebook and Twitter do on their platforms should always be called “moderation.” That moderation can be bad, irrational and unjust. It can be worthy of moral criticism. But it can never justify the use of regulatory force by governments.
Regulatory force does not fix the irrationality and injustice–it only replaces it with a much worse type of injustice. It “fixes” the injustice of the irrational refusal of a voluntary deal, with the injustice of an oppressive government gun. It implements the socialist idea that a person’s property is not his to control, when it becomes sufficiently productive or popular. It thus tries to unjustly erase the fact that a certain set of individuals is responsible for the existence of the popular business in the first place.
When the rights of creators over their creations are not respected–when innovators are punished for innovation rather than rewarded–innovation slows and eventually stops. When the government regulates and takes control, to that extent, you get oligarchs in place of innovators. Then, you get real censorship, in place of moderation.
 When social media CEOs call for government regulation of social media, they are also very much in the wrong. They might be doing it with the misguided intention to make social media better, or as a corrupt ploy to exclude competitors. But either way, it’s just as bad–if not worse–than when others call for such regulation. Depending on what regulations they are asking for, this sort of lobbying could properly be called an attempt at censorship.
 Yes, the government is already pretty heavily involved in the financial industry, and yes, it does make it much harder to form start-ups to compete with established firms. But the long-term solution to this problem is not to advocate for more government regulation in other areas. This just makes things worse and more authoritarian. The solution is to advocate that government stop the regulation that it’s currently engaged in.