The most important of all the rights we cherish is without a doubt our right to free expression. As long as this right remains, it serves as the cornerstone for each and every one of our rights, as well as the reason why society is what it is now and why it will keep changing every year.
We are well known that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech only applies to censorship carried out by institutions of the state, such as Congress, local governments, and school boards. That’s why we typically put up with a certain amount of censorship before retaliating fiercely when a private company attempts to stifle communication. Even the greatest firms’ policies may be changed without a revolution, and private enterprises don’t need to be terrorized by blood or death. Instead, we merely need to use our purchasing power and decide to do business with new firms that are created as a result of decisions made by established organizations.
Governments, on the other hand, do not provide us this privilege, therefore we must battle to the last end to bring back the values we aspire to.
But what happens when a company that has a similar influence on your life as the government seems to have a problem? The payment processing goliath PayPal recently crossed a boundary by putting forward an ominous rule: It intended to start acting as “thought police” by changing its terms of service so that it could charge a user $2,500 and freeze their cash if they disseminated “misinformation.”
It is simple to see the results of a payment processing behemoth enacting such a rule, designating it as the arbiter of “truth,” and granting it the power to stifle someone’s livelihood when it disagrees with that person. When the Canadian government blocked the bank accounts of protesting truck drivers during the epidemic, for instance, the stifling effect on expression was clear. Did PayPal decide to implement a similar regulation after observing the impact that Canada’s legislation, which basically eliminated the demonstrations overnight, had, in order to portray themselves as powerful speech moderators?
The spread of false information is bad for society and should not be accepted. Making regulations that allow one organization to decide what counts as “information” and what counts as “truth” is improper. Misinformation is frequently only an unsubstantiated idea or a contested point of view that leads dissenters to regard the opposition as the enemy.
Thankfully, PayPal overturned this choice, stating that it was a mistake and that it had never been meant to be part of the terms of service. Regardless of whether this was the case, it is clear that PayPal is prepared, ready, and able to enact restrictive regulations on the platform if public opinion changes in a particular manner. If PayPal wishes to boost its reputation, it must explain in great detail how and why the error occurred, name the person or people involved, and explain why they were given the go-ahead to modify the terms and conditions, and even why they were allowed to consider doing so.
For some clients, it will be tough to believe PayPal when there isn’t complete openness.
I have no doubt that a similar situation will arise in the private sector again, and that it will have the same chilling effect in the absence of a government reaction. What, after all, stops other big tech firms or even conventional banks from assuming the role of truth-tellers and denying people access to their money—the primary source of survival in the contemporary world—in order to rule as the arbiters of reality? The free market is the only thing standing in the way of people utilizing this choice, hence the answer is nothing. This future becomes less implausible and more certain if the market moves in favor of socialism, marxism, or communism. After then, it is just a matter of time before the general perception of speech changes from one of freedom to one of constraint.
And to make matters worse, once that time comes, there will be no turning back since the terrible consequences of coming out against the platform will be too great for the average person to endure.
This begs the question of how far we are willing to go in order to uphold the axiom that private enterprises are free to act whenever they like since they are not governed by the government. Restrictive speech laws should not be an obstacle to private businesses’ freedom to operate as they see proper. However, there comes a time when the idea of private enterprise independence jeopardizes societal welfare.
Because companies today have their own rights to free speech and can control who has access to their platforms and what they may say on them, we generally allow them to act whatever they like. Although only temporary, PayPal’s crossing of the boundary makes this assumption practically useless. PayPal, a global platform, is anticipated to handle more than $1 trillion in transactions this year. Are we willing to accept that a platform with such influence on numerous livelihoods should have the right to impose harsh speech limitations?
The idea that businesses are the “real government” is demonstrated by this instance. The unsettling future in which businesses rule our lives will grow more likely unless something is done to stop it. The best we can do right now to prevent corporate behemoths from having too much power over our lives and minds, regardless of the resolution—whether it be a constitutional amendment, a Supreme Court decision, or some other arrangement—is to vote with our wallets when appropriate.