Way back in 2017 (it seems almost ancient history now) I wrote this “editorial” for another blog. I don’t claim to be prescient, but it was obvious even back then that “social media platforms” were out of control.
It has finally become painfully obvious that the behavior of social media organizations needs to be (ahem) unmasked, and that social media platforms that block, edit, or change content need to be declared publishers. And as publishers, their protections from libel and slander lawsuits under Section 203 0f the Communications Decency Act should be eliminated.
Throughout American history, individuals have formed companies that created products used by “the masses”. Some of those products became so widely used that they became core to the American lifestyle: electric lighting, telephone, and water systems come immediately to mind.
Other products became widely used as well: automobiles and airplanes come immediately to mind.
But communication products – devices and systems that have a direct effect on society and play a part in the political life of America, have always been treated differently.
Since radio, television, and other forms of telephony play a part in spreading information, and since the spread of information comes under the 1st Amendment, companies that are directly responsible for “speech that influences” have come under regulation to ensure fairness (although it doesn’t always work that way).
To regulate electronic forms of information dissemination, the Federal Communications Commission was formed. It has sometimes been influenced in how it regulates influence, but has (for the most part) managed to find a balance between allowing the free exercise of speech while enforcing some rules to keep the speech from becoming too offensive (e.g. the regulations against profanity).
A new form of information dissemination has spread over the past several years via a communication medium that was never considered at the time the FCC was instituted: the Internet. Originally created for military use, and designed to withstand both widespread natural disasters and nuclear war, the Internet has become indispensable as the primary method for information flow. The Internet has the reach and the influence that radio had in then 1930s and TV had in the 1960s.
But there is no regulation on the Internet. The FCC’s attempt at “net neutrality” was based on cost of access, not content.
It is time for the FCC to begin to look at regulating content on the Internet. It is time for the FCC to examine whether companies like Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, and other “providers” are using their power to decide who has “access” to the internet, and whether that “access” is being affected by those companies – and whether decisions on “access” are based entirely on “content”.
When Google or Facebook, which have become so powerful as to be considered utilities, decide which content they will allow and which they will deny, they enter the realm of “control over political discussion”. And by entering this realm and deciding which information they will – and won’t – disseminate, they can control the political process.
It is time for the FCC to step in and determine how the Internet should be regulated, just as they stepped in to determine how the original Bell Telephone needed to be regulated and how radio and TV were regulated.
Google and Facebook are not public utilities. They are privately owned, but they need to be declared “common carriers” to force them to stop making decisions about who uses their services and how they make their information available.
Does this mean that ISIS may have a free hand on Facebook? Yes… and no. Facebook may not like what ISIS posts, but it should not be in the business of blocking it. It’s the same with neo-Nazis and alt-right extremists. And it is the same with antiFA, BLM, BAMN, and other alt-left extremists. Facebook should remain neutral on content – but is free to contact authorities when it feels that content presents an immediate danger to others.
And it is the same with Facebook and “fake news”: Facebook should not be in the business of deciding which news is “fake” and which news is “real”. It has become a “common carrier”, and needs to stop regulating what is seen on its network.
Yes, it sucks to build a tool that is adopted by thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions around the world – and then be told that “you have too much influence to be allowed to continue to operate according to your personal agenda.” But that’s where we are today: hundreds of millions of people around the world getting their information “filtered” through the minds of a select few who determine “what’s best” for their subscribers.
The time has come for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other highly-influential organizations to be told that they need to get out of the “regulating and choosing content” business. They have become too big and too influential, and need to be regulated as “utilities”.
Sometimes there is a place for government. And when it comes to ensuring that all people have the same right to have their political speech be heard, the 1st Amendment must be the guiding principle. In this country, your right to free speech must be protected. And when companies or city governments trample on those rights (are you listening, Berkeley?) it is time for the federal government to step in and restore those rights.