There are growing calls from both sides of the political aisle for government regulation of speech on social media platforms, but letting government dictate what is acceptable speech is the very definition of censorship.
It’s true that some right-of-center users have been suspended or banned from Twitter, put in “Facebook jail,” or had their videos or channels pulled from YouTube. However, in fairness, it’s also true that liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has had some of her content pulled from Facebook and that the company inadvertently labeled every ad with LGBT in it as political, whether it was or not.
That both sides of the ideological spectrum have been dinged suggests that not every act of content moderation enforcement is politically motivated. Sometimes users have simply run afoul of the stated community standard rules. Facebook admitted in a 2018 letter that it likely has a 10 percent error rate in content moderation. Is government regulation the answer?
No content moderation system is perfect, of course, but getting government involved will break companies’ imperfect systems completely. The only winners will be politicians empowered to deploy regulatory cudgels against critics and established social media firms, which can use those same rules to shield themselves against the competition.
Calls from the right for new laws to dictate speech online show a complete disregard for the property rights limited government types profess to value. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube’s platforms are private property, not the public square, as they are often described. There is an important distinction between speaking one’s mind without fear of arrest or property seizure and being denied access to Facebook’s private property for violating the terms of service to which one agreed.
Many calling for government regulation are threatening to withdraw the protections of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Before Congress passed Section 230, platforms worried that if they made or maintained any community standards for what user-posted content was allowed on their sites, they’d be treated as traditional publishers under the law and exposed to potentially crippling liability. Website hosts were faced with two choices: adopt either a hands-off approach that left platforms unusable and littered with ads, pornography, and undesirable content, or remove offending user-posted items and risk fatal amounts of legal jeopardy.
Congress passed Section 230 explicitly to allow social media companies to make and enforce rules about content without fear of legal repercussions. Now critics of social media companies are demanding a return to the hands-off approach where no content rules exist or one in government is in charge of making the rules.
Letting the government patrol content has never been a boon for conservative voices. The Federal Communications Commission’s defunct 1949 Fairness Doctrine, required broadcast license holders to align their content with what FCC regulators deemed honest, equitable, and balanced. In practice, the doctrine resulted in the stifling of speech deemed controversial because of the threat of federal investigations and fines. Conservatives also should consider the liberal bent of National Public Radio and the Public Broadcast Service before calling for federal guidelines.
Need further proof that government regulation of speech on social media is a bad idea? Behold Mark Zuckerberg’s written request for it in a March Washington Post op-ed: “Regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”
Zuckerberg calling for regulation? Isn’t regulation big business’ worst fear? Not when you’re the market leader like Facebook is right now. With a $478 billion market cap, Facebook will have a seat at the table when the regulations are crafted and can afford compliance costs. Not so for the next, yet-to-be-created, social media competitor.
The yet unknown next big thing in social media won’t have the freedom Zuckerberg enjoyed when he was building Facebook and given a new regulatory environment with high barriers to entry, perhaps that new competitor won’t even come into existence. Facebook will have locked its market leader position into place with the help of the federal government.
Calls from the political left for the regulation of speech on social media are at least consistent. Progressives generally favor more government regulation across the board. The online world is no exception. Facebook’s willingness to be regulated is also clear; the company would lock its lead in place in exchange for content rules it likely agrees with and will shape during the rulemaking process.
Conservatives should think twice before endorsing government policing of speech online. They won’t like the rules they get and will regret selling out their principles to get them.