Trying to Regulate Online Speech Will Only Make Censorship Worse

Jul 1, 2019 by

Op-Ed by Michael Rieger –

Whenever a supposed small-government conservative threatens to use “the heavy hand of government,” you know something has gone terribly wrong. Yet Texas Senator Ted Cruz uttered those very words to a Google executive at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Cruz joins plenty of other conservatives, most notably Senate colleague Josh Hawley, in supporting the regulation of social media companies due to persistent anti-conservative bias. While Cruz is right to be angry, his threats of government regulation are decidedly un-conservative and counterproductive. Government regulations are the real threat here, not social media companies’ policies.

Civil society and political debate in the United States didn’t begin with Facebook, nor would they end if social media disappeared overnight. Before the Internet, politically active Americans could still call in to radio shows, attend city council meetings, and write op-eds for their local newspapers—all of which they can still do.

When Zuckerberg and his roommates at Harvard first created Facebook, they hardly expected it to grow into an important forum for political discourse.

Facebook and other social media sites are, at their core, social networking services provided by the private sector. Social media is not a utility (no one has Facebook pipes hooked up to their homes) or a university where freedom of speech is imperative. As a customer-focused service, Facebook’s primary responsibility is to provide a climate that is best suited to its users, the majority of whom are more interested in sharing photos of their pets and children than they are in long political screeds.

In fact, Facebook’s broad user base is actually responsible for it having a more laissez-faire attitude toward censorship than many of its contemporaries. For example, Bumble, a dating app, banned guns from its users’ profiles, claiming it didn’t want to mix violence and romance. Facebook has done no such thing, likely held in check by its users’ preferences.

Furthermore, Facebook has proven to be remarkably responsive to users’ concerns. Facebook significantly revamped their privacy and security settings in response to questions following the Cambridge Analytical scandal and even brought in Jon Kyl, a former Republican senator from Arizona, to lead an effort to eliminate political bias on the platform.

Facebook is held most accountable by its users, or more precisely, the threat that its users may cease to be users. Contrary to popular opinion, Facebook is not a monopoly and is constantly competing with other social media platforms for consumers’ time. While platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, and Reddit aren’t one-to-one replacements for Facebook’s services, an overly censored Facebook risks having its users invest more time in these other spaces.

In fact, government regulation of social media poses a far greater danger to freedom of speech than social media companies themselves ever could. While many Americans may find any sort of censorship by Facebook distasteful, the competition Facebook faces makes it far more receptive to its users’ demands than a regulatory agency.

After all, many regulatory agencies have a troubled history of using their power to settle scores or advance partisan agendas. Those calling for social media regulation would do well to remember that the IRS targeted conservative organizations, and the FBI investigated Fox News journalist James Rosen for simply doing his job.

Were the Obama administration still in power, it is unlikely that conservatives would trust the government to regulate online speech, and we have no reason to believe that those in charge of regulating social media will always be amenable to specific political views; the Trump administration won’t hold power forever.

Finally, the regulation of Facebook opens the door to crony capitalism that could make its dominance over social media even stronger. Rather than weakening Facebook, government regulation of social media could strengthen and entrench it by reducing competition from other social media platforms and making it harder for new platforms to enter the market, including niche social media platforms that cater specifically to conservatives. It’s easy to forget that Facebook is only 13 years old and that it eliminated the “monopoly” of MySpace before it.

While many users may bristle at Facebook’s power to censor, they are much better served complaining to Facebook, or simply logging off, than they are handing off power over the Internet to Uncle Sam.

Michael received his B.A. (2016) from the University of Michigan in history, with a specialization in East Asian history. 

Source: Trying to Regulate Online Speech Will Only Make Censorship Worse

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