Twitter, Facebook, Google and Censorship: Not So Fast
Shock-jock libertarian and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones got booted off a bunch of social media sites. His supporters are crying “censorship!” Some free speech advocates agree; BreakPoint’s John Stonestreet cautions, “Not so fast! These social media companies have free speech rights, too, and we dare not set the wrong precedent.”
John’s a friend. Still, I’m answering him, “Not so fast, John.”
Social Media Companies Something New?
These companies are corporations — and yet they’re different in important ways. They’ve become something else, something new, and we’d better start figuring out what it is.
The country has faced the “something new” question before. The U.S. passed the Sherman Antitrust Law in 1890, placing severe limits on the growth of monopolies. At the same time, though, the country recognized certain industries just naturally called for monopolies. It made no sense for competing railroad companies to lay parallel tracks, or for Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse to string their own separate electric lines to every town and neighborhood.
So the “natural monopoly” was born. Throughout the 20th century, homes had exactly one company to choose from for electric, gas, and telephone service. Lacking competition, these companies were heavily regulated as “public utilities,” to keep prices and revenues in line. It was a “something new” solution to a new kind of problem.
A Dangerous Freedom
Facebook, Google and Twitter pose yet another new kind of problem. No one’s calling them monopolies, yet they’ve got so much control over the information-sharing space they might as well be. Sure, there’s competition out there: You can search the web with DuckDuckGo, for example. Still, if your web page isn’t on Google, you can just fuhgeddaboudit.
And there’s something awfully handy about having just one place to look. Who even wants multiple competing quick-burst services like Twitter? I want one channel that can reach everyone on the internet.
So there’s something like a natural monopoly there. Except it’s a monopoly over information flow. It affects a freedom far more crucial than any other free-speech issue to date. These companies hold way too much power. More to the point, that power is held by a very small group of men and women, mostly in Silicon Valley, who can do exactly what they want with it. They’re accountable to no one but their shareholders.
And that might just make these companies “something new.”
A New and Difficult Problem
When natural monopolies came along, the government found ways to regulate them for the good of all. Maybe it’s time to try something like that with these major social media companies, something that would allow the rest of us a real say in what they will and won’t allow in their channels. Wouldn’t that solve the problems of publishing or punishing people like Alex Jones, and banning true conservatives and Christians?
Earlier I said, “Not so fast, John.” Now I need to say, “Not so fast, Tom.” First off, giving “the rest of us” a real say just isn’t possible in the real world. It would be some kind of state-mandated oversight group. Whether elected or appointed, that group would have too much of the wrong kind of power. Think “Ministry of Information,” or less elegantly (but more honestly), “Department for Determining What You’re Allowed to Say and Hear on the Internet.” Goodbye, First Amendment; it was nice having you around for a while.
For all the good the internet has done, it’s also raised up an unprecedented kind of problem. We’ve handed a very small group of people keys to power like no unelected, unappointed group has ever held before. There’s real danger in that. It’s looming over us all, but especially over moral and religious conservatives, whose values don’t line up with Silicon Valley’s.
We need a better answer. Handing the power to some governmental body isn’t it. We’d better figure out what is — and we’d better do it fast.