Freedom of Speech Versus Private Ownership: Polish Right Wing Goes to War with Facebook

Robert S. Donovan via flickr || Creative Commons

Recently, a number of Facebook accounts of the Polish right wing have been banned from the portal. This, obviously, generated a wave of discontent among the group. I, however, wonder why should we expect a U.S. corporation established with private funds and focused on generating profit to realize some kind of “mission” more than we expect it from the Polish state tv broadcaster, financed by the Polish citizens? The one-sidedness of the content presented in the Polish public television (TVP) and sheer manipulation featured in the evening news cry to heaven and are a subject of either complaints, or jokes. This, however, does not seem to bother the right.

The outrage of the right wing brought about by a temporary ban on the Facebook accounts of people who organized the so-called “Independence March” (which in Poland is associated rather with violent protests of the right wing and nationalists than a peaceful demonstration) raises much more questions than the repercussions of the actions of a horde of young nationalists running around the streets in the name of fighting for some higher ideals. The quasi-pro-freedom discourse sounds absurd in the mouth of supporters of ongoing brawls disguised as the infamous “good change”, recently introduced in Poland by the Law and Justice government. Shouting that everyone has an inborn right to a have Facebook account and quoting the Constitution sounds more like a bad joke coming from the people who not so long ago did nothing to oppose the government which went against the document. But let’s put this aspect aside for a moment.

Freedom of Speech versus Private Ownership

Of course, I support the idea of having the freedom to promote any kind of beliefs and political convitions, regardless of whether they make me laugh or angry. Each kind of censorship is bad. No “council of wise men” – created, for example, as an advising body to Twitter – even composed of the best members imagineable does not justify the opressiveness of the censored content.

However, when it comes to social media, we face a conflict of two values – freedom of speech and ownership rights. Social media outlets are private entreprises, which well imitate public space. But they are not public space per se. Since they are relatively new phenomena, we cannot be certain whether we should treat social media as analogue media – are they to be deemed responsible for the content published by the users? Courts have, however, declared that this is the case when it comes to online forums. Are therefore social media be deemed publishers of somebody else’s content and thus be able decide on their own whether to publish something or not? After all, nobody would label as censorship the refusal of the right-wing magazine Do Rzeczy to publish an article by Adam Michnik or if Gazeta Wyborcza daily did the same to a piece by Rafał Ziemkiewicz.

Private owners of social media portals never promised a complete freedom to its users. By creating an account we agree to various policies and standards – in general, we accept the rules and principles of a given company. By becoming a member of a given online community we do not become its citizens – merely consumers of a product, which is located somewhere far away, usually across the ocean.

What Are the Owner’s Rights ?

The terms of censorship and freedom of speech are ultimately related to the notion of public sphere, which in Poland is regulated by state law. It is, however, questionable, whether such regulations allow for entering a public sphere and if so, then to what extent exactly. Shall therefore an owner of a club, in the name of freedom, be forced to rent the club avaiable for a concert of a band that promotes fascism or communism – an ideology the owner deems pathological? Or to rent it for a meeting with a politician the owner cannot stand? Should you own a private newspaper, should you be forced to publish an article of a journalist you deem vermin? And finally, do I have to allow the people whose opinion I deem dangerous to the values I personally support to shape the content of my online portal?

Recently in Poland, there was an infamous case of the owner of a printing office who was widely criticised for refusing to print leaflets of a LGBTQ organization. Although I do not agree with his decision, in my opinion he had the right to do so – the leaflets could easily be printed in a printing office across the street.

I do not agree with the actions of Facebook – I belive they have a detrimental effect on freedom of speech and actually, they are rather counter-productive. If I were to advise the corporation on a business strategy, I would suggest being open to all groups and communities, regardless of their beliefs and convictions. On the other hand, I cannot agree with the statements that Facebook had no right to block the accounts it deemed unacceptable – it does have a right to do so since it is a private enterprise. It may be a highly upgraded and equipped with many options for its users which make an illusion of a medium but it still just a somewhat typical online forum. Of course, it is a huge portal that to some extent monopolizes internet – and yet still, it is a private, commercial endeavour. And if its owners – as so many others who own other media outlets – decide that they intend to exclude certian viewpoints from the content of their portal, then they have every right to do so (just like every other medium). It is their own business decision – whether they want to act as public sphere with no censorship or maybe they rather act as a community within certian framework (be it in terms of values or viewpoint as well).

We Are the Consumers, Not the Citizens of Facebook

From the whining of the right wing we maye discern a reasonable voice of Minister of Digitization Anna Streżyńska – according to her, the users are free to talk to, negotiate with, impose pressure on the company but the demands of the users have no legal basis whatsoever. It is not the relation between a citizen and a society. It is the relation between a consumer and service provider. A consumer may expect something but the provider has the right to decide whether or not to meet the expectations. A consumer has the right to boycott such a provider and find another one to meet his/her expectations but it would be ridiculous to expect from a bakery that it simply has to sell you a ciabatta when it sells only baguettes.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz