Who Should Guarantee Your Rights?

With the established ubiquity of tech giants such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, there have been many criticisms that these companies act like monopolies. On the other hand, one sees them standing up for net neutrality, citing citizens’ and businesses’ rights to unimpeded access to information. Notably, these companies have all called out the FCC, declaring that an end to net neutrality will be the death of free speech. So, are these companies the new guarantors of free speech? What happens if they dislike what you say?

Where Does Free Speech Really Live?

While the United States – and many other nations – enshrine the freedom of speech into their most fundamental laws, the responsibility of upholding and enforcing those rights seems to have shifted. Companies such as Google and other tech giants are currently championing net neutrality, citing freedom of speech as the main reason to keep net neutrality intact.

The logic for connecting net neutrality to free speech is readily apparent. Net neutrality treats all data the same, meaning ISPs cannot privilege “premium” websites, data, or content. This is what allows you to access YouTube and Netflix at the same speed as someone’s personal blog. However, without net neutrality laws in place, a company could – and likely would – be able to speed up or slow down connections to various parts of the internet. This would constitute a kind of censorship, because if an ISP disagreed with or were paid to disagree with some content, website, or other message, they could make it so slow to access that most people would give up. This is what Ajit Pai of the FCC is fighting for, a system that would allow such egregious violations of one’s rights.

With an American governmental organization – the FCC – attempting to bring down net neutrality, and thus free speech, does that mean tech companies now have our backs more so than the federal government? It appears so, at least.

The Problem with Companies Guaranteeing Your Freedom of Speech

While it is noble and commendable that thousands of companies including these tech giants are standing up for freedom of speech and net neutrality, having private companies guarantee your rights instead of legal institutions can be dangerous. Law is really the only truly binding way to preserve rights. Company missions and minds change, and do so a lot quicker than legislative and judicial bodies in the government.

Recently, a Gizmodo article surfaced alleging that Google has the power to stamp out ideas it dislikes. The author of the article claimed that while working with Google on a project, she discovered that if publishers did not provide a Google Plus “+1” option for sharing purposes, their standings in searches would suffer. The article went on to say that such content would get buried and eventually removed.

Whether or not these allegations are true is subject to a bit of debate. However, it is a useful cautionary tale of what could happen if we entrust freedom of speech to companies only. While it is good to have corporations’ voices backing up actual citizens, citizens themselves must demand better rights protections from their government and not rely on big business to safeguard them.