In a recent article on the Lawfare blog
, Jeb Rubenfeld, a law professor at Yale, sets out the challenges of viewing the likes of Facebook and Google as ‘public forums’ as well as the implications of them being deemed nonpublic. Go down one road and the mega-platforms become ‘end up as new Silk Roads on a scale never seen before.’ Down the other, there are hate speech policies applied inconsistently, arbitrarily and, in some cases, disproportionately.
All of this goes some way to explain Mark Zuckerberg’s main thrust in his much-reported speech at Georgetown University back in October (full text
) in which he was at pains to reiterate that Facebook was about ‘regular people having more of a voice’. Most commentators saw that as further support for the idea of Facebook as a public town square (see this 2018 New Yorker piece for more
) and, subsequently, for reduced moderation liabilities. In Zuck’s defence, Jack Dorsey made the same claim of Twitter
in January this year.
The good news is that smart folk are working on finding an answer to this public vs non-public debate. Eli Pariser, who co-founded Upworthy and Avaaz, is working with Professor Talia Shroud on Civic Signals
, a new non-profit set up to help create new rules for digital spaces
by taking inspiration from town planning and city-building (ideas that are referenced in Jeb’s piece).
It’s an odd debate in many ways — US centric, legalistic for the most part and detached from the day-to-day discussion of content moderation — but the simple question of 'what is public?’ may hold the answer to a lot more than we realise.