Peonage Was Abolished. Do Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube Know?

Twitter, Google’s YouTube, and Facebook use the uncompensated labor of their users. These platforms sell that labor, as a media product, to other users and advertisers for tens of billions of dollars.

Granted, not every tweet is labor, and not every Facebook or Twitter user is a laborer. But people who contribute using their professional skills or in a work-like manner (for example citizen-journalists or scientists) are indeed laborers. A single post or tweet might express the results of weeks or months of investigative journalism or research.

Twitter started as a communication utility. YouTube marketed itself as a platform for self-expression. Facebook was something of both. However, things started to change as all three companies introduced significant requirements for user-produced content. Slowly, the requirements became stricter and longer, becoming almost product specifications for the content. Only YouTube financially compensates its user-contributors, but considers this a privilege, to be granted or withdrawn at will (“demonetization”).

Labor Must Be Compensated

Since the Democrats lost the civil war 150 years ago, labor must be compensated. The compensation does not have to be financial. Many authors and other creators are happy to write or create for various publications without payment, in exchange for other types of consideration, such as visibility, promotion, and distribution (Tasini v. AOL, 2012).

But Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (TYF) do not provide these types of compensation. They do not provide authors distribution or visibility. Instead, they want authors to bring their audience to the company’s platform. Twitter has billions of users, but so does the Internet. A typical author would not get more distribution by writing on Twitter than by writing on his or her personal blog. This is the main difference between one of these platforms and a publication. An article in a respected publication, like American Thinker or WattsUpWithThat, would be read by thousands of its readers of Human Events because they like and trust the publication, even if they have never heard of the author. On the other hand, one’s tweets are read only by a fraction of my Twitter Followers. For actual promotion, Twitter and Facebook charge fees.

Further, any attracted audience, recognition, and goodwill are attached to the username on the platform and have little value outside of it. By design, these platforms keep all fruits of a contributor’s labor inside. If a contributor is suddenly de-platformed, s/he immediately loses all of it.

The fact that the social media companies live off the free labor of their users was noticed many times. Free labor is Facebook’s lifeblood, You don’t know it, but you are working for Facebook For free are just some sample headlines. In his post TWITTER’S SLAVE LABOR FORCE, blogger Eric Posner, wondered “How did Twitter pull off this amazing feat—of not only obtaining billions of dollars per year in free labor, but from highly intelligent and educated people—academics and journalists—who are normally hard to fool?

Contributors were attracted by TYF’s promises of free speech, neutrality, and continuity, which have been given explicitly and implicitly. Based on TYF’s past representations and behavior, contributors expected their accounts to be treated as their property, not restricted, throttled, or terminated, except for just cause. Section 230 protects service providers from liability toward third parties, not for violation of their promises to their customers and contractors.

At this point in the argument, TYF lawyers usually invoke their Terms of Service (ToS). These terms are invalid. For example, Twitter’s ToS runs 39 pages, not including separate Rules and Policies. It was changed again six days ago, on June 18, 2020. Somewhere hidden deep within are the following pearls:

“We may revise these Terms from time to time. … We will try to notify you of material revisions … you agree to be bound by the revised Terms.”

This is a textbook example of an invalid contract, and mockery of the Contract Law. A contract cannot be revised unilaterally. Some additional pearls:

By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content … no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content … as the use of the Services by you is hereby agreed as being sufficient compensation for the Content and grant of rights herein.”

“We may suspend or terminate your account or cease providing you with all or part of the Services at any time for any or no reason …”

This is even worse. This is the definition of indentured servitude, or peonage. Compensation that can be rescinded any time is an illusory one. Unfortunately for Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, but to the benefit of the rest of us, “Peonage is abolished and forever prohibited  in any Territory or State of the United States” (42 U.S. Code § 1994). Obtaining labor under such terms and certain existing circumstances, is profitable, but illegal.  Among these special circumstances are: TYF are monopolies; TYF are state actors; TYF can and do inflict significant harm on their laborers without having to account to courts of law, or other authorities.


18 U.S. Code § 1589. Forced labor:

“(a) Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person by any one of, or by any combination of, the following means …

(2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or another person;

(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process;

(c) The term ‘serious harm’ means any harm, whether physical or nonphysical, including psychological, financial, or reputational harm …

(d) Whoever violates this section shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

Here, the term “harm” is defined exceptionally broadly, corresponding to the general understanding that obtaining uncompensated labor in commerce is wrong in itself, and even a shadow of duress makes it crime.

Many TYF contributors invested years of work in their presence on these platforms, expecting to derive financial benefits from that investment, for example by being able to promote their tours or merchandise. Many users also use their TYF accounts in professional activities outside of these platforms. They will undoubtedly suffer financial harm if they leave.

Facebook and Twitter have also become essential communication tools in many people’s private lives. If users leave Facebook and Twitter, they become cut off from friends, family, and community, and will suffer psychological harm.

TYF tell the public that they only ban hate speech, outright falsehoods, harassment, fraud and other bad conduct, and that they only de-platform extreme offenders. Due to these claims, still believed in some circles, a suspended or terminated author suffers serious reputational harm.

Remaining on a platform but not contributing labor is not an option. Contributors who use their accounts for business purposes have to continue contributing. Their followers will likely interact with them regarding previous posts, and the authors would have no other means to reply. User-contributors remain subject to TYF’s disciplinary measures (like suspension or defamation by “fact checkers”), even for past content, as long as their accounts are open. If an author chooses to leave, after some of his or her content has been banned or defamed (negative “fact checked”) by Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, the author would suffer similar, albeit lesser, reputational harm. It is not normally public knowledge whether a user’s account is terminated by TYF or voluntarily closed by the owner. Thus, third parties, seeing prior banning of a contributor’s content combined with the disappearance of the contributor’s account, are likely to assume that the author was deplatformed for bad conduct, again resulting in reputational harm to the contributor.

Each of these examples of harm suffered for leaving these platforms satisfies the § 1589(a)(2) description of ‘serious harm’. Brandishing ToS with the clauses quoted above might be a separate violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1589 – threatened abuse of law or legal process, § 1589(a)(3).

Obamanet made this possible and democrat politicians and Obama holdovers in the DOJ allowed it to continue. History teaches us that beneficiaries of indentured labor would do anything not to relinquish such benefits.

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