Inside the Gallery
Running a social media service is a lot like running an art gallery with an open space.
I have to admit, I have been somewhat surprised at people arguing against tech companies being able to enforce their terms of service. Working at a software company, I have been involved with our legal representatives in crafting terms of service, and never have I heard a question come up about our ability to enforce said terms. However, with social media, this seems to be coming up fairly often these days.
It reminds me of when, a few years ago, Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips kept posting nudes on Instagram. Since this violated their terms of service, they would suspend his account and take down his photos. He would sort of complain about this, feign ignorance, then start up a new account and start posting nudes again. His fans would be incensed by Instagram’s enforcement of their terms. Their sense of indignation about Coyne being entitled to violate Instagram’s terms of service seemed to imply that he was either the owner, or partner, or at the very least a paying customer. In reality, he was none of those things. Increasingly, people who publish on big social media networks seem to feel that a space on those networks belongs to them, and they are free to use whatever editorial discretion they see fit.
If an artist, like Coyne, wanted to display his artwork in a gallery, the gallery would have to agree to that artwork being displayed in their space. Even if, hypothetically, the gallery were to have an open exhibition and allow anyone to show their art, there would likely be rules about what could be displayed. If those rules were violated, the gallery would then have the right to take down the artwork. The gallery belongs to its owner, and they manage the infrastructure, rent/mortgage, utilities, upkeep and more. In the case of Instagram (which I’ll stick to, for purposes of the analogy), they pay for the R&D, support, infrastructure, monitoring, etc.[^Although, less of the “R” part when they just steal features from other platforms.] Therefore, they have every right to determine what appears on the service for which they are then responsible.
The argument for unrestricted rights to post anything on social media seems to stem from a belief that, once a service reaches a certain critical mass, it becomes a property of the people. After all, no one is arguing that Micro.blog doesn’t have a right to their stringent community standards.[^Even people who are using the Micro.blog service who are making the argument that Twitter shouldn’t be able to enforce its standards.] The people who run the service are very open about how members of the community have to behave. Are having those community guidelines a violation of free speech? Not at all. Those who create and maintain a service have the right to decide what is permissible on that service, regardless of the size of the service and how many members it may attract.
As M.G. Siegler put it:
Twitter is a private enterprise. They can set their own rules for what they want or do not want on their service. Including whom they want or do not want on their service. Full stop.
I’ve expended a few words to get to the same point, but it’s really that simple.