Opinion by Armstrong Williams, Opinion Contributor
Our right to free expression is unquestionably the most significant of all the liberties we hold dear. It is the foundation of every right we enjoy, the reason why society exists in its current form, and the reason why it will continue to evolve each year, as long as this right exists.
As we are well aware, the First Amendment guarantee of free expression only extends to censorship by state actors such as Congress, local governments and school boards. That’s why, when a private entity decides to suppress speech, we frequently tolerate a certain degree of censorship before reacting angrily. No revolution is necessary to change the policy of even the largest corporations; no blood or death is required to strike fear into the hearts of private organizations. Instead, we need only vote with our wallets and choose to transact with new companies that emerge as a result of decisions made by existing companies.
Governments, on the other hand, do not provide us with this right; therefore, we must fight to the death to restore the principles we desire.
But what happens when a business with the same impact on your life as the government appears to go bad? Recently, the payment processing behemoth PayPal crossed a line by proposing an alarming rule: It planned to begin assuming the role of “thought police” by modifying its terms of service to allow it to collect a $2,500 fine and freeze a person’s funds if they spread “misinformation.”
It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of a payment processing giant instituting such a policy, making it the arbitrator of “truth” and giving it a stranglehold over a person’s livelihood when it disagrees with that individual. The chilling impact on speech was evident, for example, when the Canadian government froze the bank accounts of protesting truck drivers during the pandemic. Did PayPal observe the effect that Canada’s policy had, essentially eliminating the protests overnight, and decide to introduce a similar rule to establish themselves as influential speech moderators?
Misinformation is harmful to society and should not be tolerated. However, creating rules that permit a single body to determine what constitutes “information” and what constitutes “truth” is inappropriate. Frequently, misinformation is just an unproven theory or a disputed viewpoint that causes dissidents to consider the opposition as the enemy.
Thankfully, PayPal reversed this decision, explaining that it was an error and was never intended to be included in the terms of service. Whether or not this was the case, it is evident that PayPal is ready, willing and able to introduce restrictive policies on the platform if public opinion shifts in a given direction. If PayPal wants to improve its public image, it must explain, in detail, how and why the error occurred, and identify the individual or individuals responsible and explain why they were granted the permission to amend the terms — and even why they were permitted to consider those changes.
In the absence of full transparency, it will be impossible for some customers to trust PayPal’s word.
I have no doubt that a situation similar to this will recur in the private sector — and the chilling impact it will have in the absence of government response will likely manifest itself once more. After all, what prevents other large tech platforms, or even traditional banks, from establishing themselves as the arbiters of truth and denying people access to their money, the basic means of subsistence in the modern world? The answer is nothing; the only thing preventing them from using this option is the free market. If the market shifts in the direction of socialism, Marxism or communism, this future seems less improbable and more inevitable. Then it becomes only a matter of time before the prevalent view of speech shifts from freedom to restriction.
Even worse, once this day arrives, the restriction on speech will be so severe that there will be no going back, since the severe repercussions of speaking out against the platform will be too strong for the average individual to bear.
This raises the question of how far we are prepared to go to support the maxim that private companies can do what they want because they are not governmental entities. Private companies should have flexibility to conduct business as they see fit, and this includes restrictive speech rules. Nonetheless, there comes a point when the notion of private company freedom undermines the good of society.
Today, we permit corporations to do what they wish because they have their own freedom of speech rights and can determine who accesses their platform and what they can say on it. However, PayPal’s venture over the line — though temporary — renders this premise essentially worthless. A global platform, PayPal is expected to process more than $1 trillion this year. Are we prepared to concede that a platform with such power over many livelihoods should be entitled to impose onerous speech restrictions?
This situation exemplifies the notion that corporations are the “true government.” Unless something is done to prevent it, the eerie scenario in which corporations dictate our lives will become increasingly plausible. Whatever the resolution — be it a constitutional amendment, a Supreme Court opinion, or some other agreement — the best we can do, for now, is vote with our dollars, when necessary, to keep corporate behemoths from controlling our lives and thoughts.