Yes, It’s Censorship

Cory Doctorow
5 min readDec 4, 2022

Stop picking that nit, it’ll never heal.

A man’s screaming, open mouth. The interior has been filled with a Matrix-style “code waterfall” effect.
conall/CC BY 2.0 (modified)

American political discourse is sticky. It gets all over the place and it’s damned hard to dislodge. People in handcuffs all over the world demand their Miranda rights, and people arguing about social media all over the world are prone to saying “it’s only censorship when the government does it.”

That’s a very American formulation! Unpacking it, it goes:

  • The First Amendment to the US Constitution is an anti-censorship rule;
  • It bans the government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech’;
  • If the government passed such a law, it would violate the First Amendment;
  • Since the First Amendment is an anti-censorship rule, then violating it is an act of censorship.

So far, so good.

But here’s where it gets slippery:

  • Therefore, anything that affects speech that is not a law passed by the government is not censorship.

That’s just wrong.

Free expression is a condition in which you are free to express yourself, and in which people who want to hear or read or see those expressive acts are likewise free to do so.

Back in 2020, I proposed a thought experiment in which two competing restaurants sit opposite one another: the Anything Goes Cafe and the No Politics At the Table Diner. At the former, you can talk about any subject you like with the people joining you at your table; at the latter, they sling your ass out if you try to talk about politics.

It’s pretty clear that Anything Goes is a more robust promoter of free expression than No Politics. It’s also clear that when a restaurant manager eavesdrops on your dinner-table conversation and then tells you to shut up because they don’t like your subject that they are abridging your free expression.

Now, I’m not saying that Twitter, Facebook, the Apple and Google App Stores and other content moderators are like a single restaurant where there’s a No Politics at the Table rule.

No, they’re a lot worse than that.

Imagine if the No Politics at the Table Diner raised a ton of money in the capital markets and opened restaurants on every…

Cory Doctorow

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