What is the lone force that can keep purported Big Tech villains like Facebook and Google from supplanting themselves as dominant platforms? Republicans.
Normally, those on the right would put their faith in markets to find a solution to their dissatisfaction with the suppression of conservative voices in the media.
Now, many conservatives suffering from a crisis of faith in creative destruction are supporting policies that would perversely result in political repression of their speech by delegating authority to agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to certify whatever political neutrality there is. Decades of leftist dominance in education, entertainment, and news media have many on the right concerned that they will be on the losing side of a culture war in social media as well. Conservatives feel excluded from “woke” boardrooms and discriminated against on the most popular social-media platforms.
In response, Republicans are circulating a package of legislative proposals ranging from increased antitrust regulation to stripping the biggest social-media companies of liability protections for third-party content posted by third parties, as well as corporate breakup.
However, equating cancel culture with censorship and responding with legislation that would greatly expand online regulation misunderstands the nature of both the Internet and the government, with unappealing and unnecessary consequences.
The Left, rest assured, is ecstatic that panic is prompting conservatives to abandon their traditional commitments to property rights and limited government.
Control, content removal or promotion, algorithm refinement, and the like are not acts of coercion or censorship, but rather expressions of the businesses that own the platforms. The imperative is to ensure that future conservative platforms can retain those same liberties.
House Republicans should remember that while everyone has the right to speak, no one has the right to compel others to provide them with a web platform, newspaper, venue, or microphone. The Constitution limits state actors, not private companies, which is what these platforms remain, no matter how large, successful, or public-facing they are, as the courts have confirmed.
Big Tech cannot prevent people from communicating with one another and sharing ideas, but some conservatives appear willing to allow the government to do so. If there is one certainty, it is that conservatives will not determine what constitutes objectivity at a future FTC and FCC.
We should all remember that the term “social media” is plural: Facebook, as an entity, is a singular social medium, as is Twitter. So were now-defunct transitory behemoths like MySpace and America Online.
Today, Facebook, Google, and Twitter do not constitute the entirety of the Internet: It is the Internet technology itself, made of ones and zeros and potentially infinite in terms of humanity, that matters, not those who happen to be using it in their business at any given time. In the midst of the content-moderation debate, legislators lose sight of the fact that Facebook and Google are merely the gauzy film that sits atop the deeper actual Internet. One can be a “never Googler,” as evidenced by the rapid growth of the privacy-protecting search engine DuckDuckGo, or one can invent an entirely new mode of communication, as demonstrated by the meteoric rise of Zoom during the COVID quarantine.
Clubhouse and TikTok recently surpassed three billion downloads on social media. The majority of the deeper Internet, including the deep (dark) web, is inaccessible to today’s Big Tech. And it’s all still open to new ideas, different points of view, and new and yet-to-be-invented alternate platforms for third-party speech.
Unless, that is, regulation cements the status quo in place. Today’s Big Tech will happily accept regulation in exchange for permanence.
Regarding Congress’s very limited role in Internet governance, the primary public-policy responsibility should be to promote the creation and expansion of private-property rights and communications wealth on existing and future platforms. Conservatives who abandon private property rights in social-media debates over bias will leave themselves defenseless against leftist opposition to property rights not only in the media, but also in other policy debates. Yielding on core principles may serve to score short-term political points, but it makes future expansion of liberty institutions — and conservative ideas — far more difficult.