Social media companies today are the equivalent of the public squares of yesteryear and need to be treated as such. I can already sense the “government can’t dictate what a private company allows” arguments heading my way, but the idea of technological public forums predates the internet.
The common carrier statutes – 47 USC Part 1 if you’re inclined to look them up – were originally created to prevent telecoms from censoring anyone. They were later updated to prevent ISP’s from censoring content. Those laws already give the federal government the tools to prevent what we euphemistically call “Big Tech” from censoring and de-platforming anyone based on political views.
Much of the focus has been incorrectly on “repealing section 230.” That idiocy refers to 47 USC 230, which ensures domains cannot be sued for the content they do not create. The point these people, including the outgoing President and Senators such as Josh Hawley, are making when they say that is they want to sue social media companies for removing or flagging the content of which those companies disapprove. That won’t solve the problem. It is more likely to make it worse, since without those liability protections social media companies cannot function. They would be liable to be sued not only for content they removed, but content they allowed. It would mean every single opinion posted would be subject to legal action, driving the companies into bankruptcy in short order.
Additionally, 47 USC 230 has absolutely no effect on preventing a web-hosting company from de-platforming an entire service, such as happened to Parler this week and Gab last year.
Where people should focus first is 47 USC 214, which regulates when and how a carrier can deny service to another entity. In this case, the carrier is a web-hosting company (much the same way AT&T once provided access to telecom lines) and the entity is the social media company. This section was the one used by Sprint to force AT&T to allow them access, effectively ending Ma Bell’s monopoly over telephone service.
As for 47 USC 230, paragraph d defines the obligations of an “access software provider,” but currently limits those obligations to warning about explicit content. By the way, the same statute defines an “access software provider” as “a provider of software (including client or server software), or enabling tools that do any one or more of the following:
(A)filter, screen, allow, or disallow content;
(B)pick, choose, analyze, or digest content; or
(C)transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content.”
Sounds like a social media company, doesn’t it?
One simple line, say, “access software providers shall be subject to Section 202 of this Code” put into Paragraph D will prevent willy-nilly censorship and de-platforming of accounts. For those concerned about how that would be fairly enforced, the same enforcement rules that have been in existence since 1932 as outlined in 47 USC 204 and 208 will work. Remember that bit about Sprint using this section of the US Code to force AT&T to allow them access? The same works on a smaller scale. What’s more, the social media companies would be expressly forbidden from preventing access by 47 USC 202. The pertinent clause is,
It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.47 USC 202 Paragraph A
In other words, the same thing that prevents Verizon from cutting off your phone service because you texted a friend “biden sucks” would prevent Twitter from restricting your access for posting “biden sucks.” That’s a win for everyone. Well, everyone except those folks who don’t want you to exercise your freedom of speech.
There’s been a slowly stirring undercurrent in the world of social media for some time – the outright banning of some people, or the even more insidious “shadow bans’ others have experienced. This received even more attention last week when Facebook announced it was removing several prominent accounts. The reason those accounts were removed wasn’t for any reason other than the things they posted offended the politically correct zeitgeist.
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.Martin Niemoeller
“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I have nothing in common with Louis Farrakhan, Paul Joseph Watson or Alex Jones. Farrakhan is a virulent anti-semite, Jones a crackpot conspiracy theorist and Watson a social media muckraker. The views of Farrakhan and Jones are abhorrent to me. As for Watson, I doubt the man has ever had an original thought. His principle thought crime seems to be that he amplifies some of the most ridiculous and salacious content to be found on the internet.
But even if you disagree with Farrakhan’s contention that Jews are the root of all evil, with Jones belief that Sandy Hook was a government plot, or with Watson’s desire to monetize the PizzaGate nonsense, you should still be concerned with Silicon Valley’s determination that somehow their opinions are less deserving to be aired than say, Alyssa Milano’s endless screeds about the world ending unless we adopt full-blown SJW socialism. Why? See the quote referenced above.
I doubt there are few beliefs that are more ingrained into our collective soul as the belief in the freedom of speech. Notice I did not say freedom of the press, which today seems to be some pundits preferred alternative to allowing the rabble to speak their minds. The first amendment of our Constitution places freedom of speech ahead of freedom of the press. We’ve accepted (somewhat begrudgingly) that there are some very limited restrictions on that freedom. You can’t run into a crowded theater and yell “Fire” if there isn’t a fire. You can’t knowingly disparage a private citizen in public, seeking to to ruin their lives, without facing potential civil and criminal charges. But that’s about it. Otherwise, our society says if you feel the need to say something, you get to say something.
Throughout our history, our nation has gone to extreme lengths to ensure we can say what we want, when we want. This protection has extended to all forms of speech. Be it Nazi’s marching in Skokie, IL or artists defacing religious symbols, we’ve let speech that offended our collective sensibilities stand. We let these things be, because we understood taking away one man’s (or group’s) freedom of speech is taking it away from all of us.
I fully understand the hesitation in enforcing these standards on the social media giants. I realize they are private companies and under current law, exempt from regulation over what content they carry and to whom they transmit that content. The libertarian in me wishes that this could remain the case.
Early on in American life, the concept of the “soapbox” was created. This was the ability of any person to grab a literal soapbox, head down to the town square, stand atop said soapbox and shout their fool head off about whatever subject prompted them to want to shout their fool head off. We don’t have town squares anymore, at least not in the sense of a public space that we all pass through at least once a day, and maybe stop for a while to chat with friends, do some window shopping, read the news, and so on.
But do you know what we’ve created as the modern equivalent of a public space that we all pass through at least once a day, and maybe stop for a while to chat with friends, do some window shopping, read the news, and so on? Yep. Social media.
From early on in American life, a person with a message they considered important enough to get out into the public sphere could pay a printer to print up a few thousand copies of a pamphlet. If one printer wouldn’t do it, there were others who would. Some of the greatest political treatises of the young country were created in this way. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense may be the famous of these, but right through the late 20th century the political pamphlet was an essential method of getting your views widely distributed. (I still have a copy of one I had researched for an old college paper, entitled “How to Get Rich! Written for Poor Men, and Young Beginners of Life, by their Affectionate Friend Uncle Ben, Who Was Once in Both These Conditions, but is Now in Neither” that was written in 1871).
Today, while that method might still be available, it has neither the immediacy nor reach of social media.
As mentioned, I understand the reluctance of conservatives to change the nature of social media companies to prevent them from censoring content. Were they, in fact, truly content independent information funnels I would agree with that assessment. But anyone who’s observed their censorious actions over the past 36 months has to have realized by now that they are neither independent nor true information pipes. Their political biases show strongly in their actions. Not that I have a problem with political bias in publication. After all, there is a reason I read both the Daily Beast and the Daily Caller: I know before I ever open either site, the stories I read will have a certain political slant. But if the social media platforms we all use only have one political slant, isn’t that a dangerous form of censorship? Is that not unlike our forebears deciding only certain views could be aired from atop that soapbox?
Another of the arguments I’ve heard is that since these are free services, we are not paying customers and therefore have no say over how they run their businesses. This is about as poorly informed an argument as you could make. As has come to light ever since the Cambridge Analytica fiasco was exposed a year ago is that while we may not pay a monthly fee to the social media juggernauts, that is only because they have something far more valuable of ours. They have the ability to sell our information, our likes, our dislikes, our friends, where we’ve traveled, even our entertainment preferences, to the highest bidder. Or to multiple bidders, if they choose. It’s all right there in those EULA’s nobody ever reads before clicking “ok.” I would tell anyone who says they don’t pay a social media company any sort of fee they’re not only wrong – they paid them tens of thousands of dollars before they created their first post. In fact, you could say I pay several publishers (social media) to print and distribute my modern pamphlet (this blog).
Finally, there is the argument that we do not regulate any other media company in such a manner. The Washington Post, for instance, is free to only air virulent anti-Trump opinions. But therein lies the rub: are companies like Facebook and Twitter only media content companies, existing to compete with other media content companies? Or are they more like akin to media distribution companies, which are prohibited from excluding content (with certain narrow exceptions)?
First, let’s examine the real-world business of social media. Yes, there are competitors to Facebook and Twitter. But those two companies account for over 80% of global traffic. After all, the key to being a “social” media company is the social part. The entire business is predicated on being a near monopoly. You go there because your friends, acquaintances and family are there. Sure, I could get together with a couple of friends, raise a few billion dollars and try to start my own social media company. But unless I could compel people to move en masse from Facebook or Twitter to my platform, I would either be out of business (or if I had developed enough “cool” features, swallowed by one of them).
Next, let’s look at their own mission statements. Facebook aims to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” What Twitter wants “is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.” Remember our Town Square analogy? It looks as though both social media giants are fully on board with that concept, in word if not in deed.
And that, my friends, should be enough to nail this down. By their own mission statements, these are not media creation companies. They are media distribution companies. Therefore, they should be classified as such – and their censorship should end immediately.
The alternative is wonder which of us will be the socialist, the unionist and the Jew to some future philosopher.
An open letter to the leadership & employees of Twitter:
I, along with millions of others worldwide, enjoy using your service. In my case, I originally joined the “Twitterverse” in 2007. Over the nearly 5 years since, I’ve engaged thousands of others in discussions regarding current events, political affairs, health issues and my beloved New York Yankees. During the popular uprising in Iran, I was one of the tens of thousands people around the globe who helped spread the word. As the Arab Spring grew and rose, I was one of those men and women who retweeted the eyes-on accounts from those on the ground.
Your company has provided a unique platform for sharing ideas and organizing the global community. More than any other company, you became the epitome of what “social media” can and should be. Regardless of whatever platform changes you’ve made throughout the years, you never lost sight of what it was that makes your service unique and valuable to millions of people, of all ages and backgrounds, throughout the world.
Never, that is, until today. With your announcement that you will now engage in selective censoship, you have abandoned the very ideals of free speech and expression that make your service at times aggravating, others hilarious, but always thought provoking and important. But once you engage in censoring those short bursts of independent thought, your service is no more relevant than any other propoganda tool.
So, for that reason, I am taking the boycott planned for tomorrow one step further. Effective tomorrow, I will stop using your service until you renounce your current course of action. If you again pledge to support a free and open internet, free of censorship, then I will happily return to using Twitter. The links from this blog, my Facebook account and numerous other sites will all be deactivated. What’s more, I’m asking all of my followers to do likewise.
So, until then, au revoir, Twitter!
While there have been some positive developments today regarding the effort to derail internet censorship, not all is well. Yes, all of the bill’s co-sponsors ended their support earlier. And several high profile legislators have since reversed positions and are now opposed to the measure, including Marco Rubio.
But SOPA’s author, Lamar (Lamer?) Smith of Texas, is still promising to go forward with the bill. With typical DC hubris, he continues to insist his bill doesn’t allow censorship – and even if it does, we shouldn’t worry about it.
Don’t let up. Keep the pressure on. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, hit the link below and do so now. Then make sure you send it to your Congressmen and Senators and have them sign, too.
Sometimes, somebody posts something so good I just have to repost it. Here is a terrific example from Mashable. This op-ed goes deep into the weeds on SOPA, explaining why it’s bad for the internet. Bad for privacy. But great if you’re a devotee of censorship.