Truly public spaces are not for sale

April 15, 2022

Yesterday Elon Musk made a hostile takeover bid for Twitter, offering to buy the company for 40+ Billion USD. In justifying his takeover bid, Musk has argued that he has realized that Twitter…

… will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.

As a result, Musk wants to turn Twitter, which is currently a public company (in the sense that its stock is publicly traded) into a private company (that is a company whose stock is held by private investors and not traded on the stock market). It is a rather curious argument that in order to realize the “societal imperative” of an online service it needs to be privatized and brought under the exclusive control of a single individual.

Predictably Musk’s takeover bid has caused an enormous amount of outrage and consternation online — much of it on Twitter. The overwhelming majority of reactions within my circles and social networks have been negative and seem to hope for Musk’s bid to fail. In other words, they prefer the status quo of Twitter as a public company[1] over the possibility of Twitter going private in the hands of Elon Musk.

And while it is easy to sympathize with this reaction, this is almost certainly the wrong question to ask. The real issue revealed by Musk’s bid is not whether Twitter should be a public or a private company but if a service of the importance of Twitter should be run by a company at all. If Twitter really serves as a de facto public town square in much of the world then, the question that we need to ask is if such a service should be run by a single company, no matter if it is controlled by a single individual or a slightly larger group of individuals.

Musk claims that his take-over bid is motivated by a “societal imperative” to be a “platform for free speech around the globe” but it is clear that he has a rather simplistic understanding of free speech in the US context and it is safe to assume he has even less grasp on the complexities of free speech in other democratic societies. And while freedom of expression is a major element of healthy democratic societies it is not the only one and needs to be balanced against other concerns.

Part of this can be achieved through regulation by law. In her reaction to Musk’s announcement Shoshana Zuboff powerfully makes this point:

 

But it is important to realize that regulation — such as the upcoming Digital Services Act in the EU — is only part of the solution. The fact that the richest man in the world can make a credible bid to take one of the most important online public spaces private reminds us that we are sorely lacking true public spaces online. Spaces that are not provided by companies whose primary purpose is profit maximization and who are subject to the whims of their corporate owners. We need spaces that are designed and maintained to allow interactions based on democratic values and that contribute to the realization of higher-level societal objectives such as promoting access to knowledge, decreasing social and economic inequality and fostering collaboration to create a more sustainable economy.

Ultimately, truly public spaces cannot be for sale. If Musks’ attempt to buy Twitter should teach us one thing it is that democratic societies must invest in truly public spaces that are not subject to centralized ownership. We need a new type of public institution that distributes the provision of interoperable public spaces across a wide spectrum of public institutions, civic initiatives and ultimately gives their contributors a stake in their governance. The conditions that govern our digital information and communication spaces should not be set in boardrooms and shareholder meetings but rather through democratic rule of law and bottom-up participation.


Footnotes

  1. To be fair, there are also a number of people who are instead arguing for Twitter to be turned into a cooperative owned by its users.^
Paul Keller
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