Twitter, Facebook, Google and Censorship: Not So Fast

By Tom Gilson Published on September 20, 2018

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.

We’ve handed a very small group of people, mostly in Silicon Valley, keys to power like no unelected, unappointed group has ever held before.

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.

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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.

We’d better figure it out — and we’d better do it fast.

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.

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  • pngmac

    Spot on, Tom!

  • Really good points and it’s time people started making them. We have faced this before in the Telephone companies, which were all privately owned, And no they were not all Ma Bell behemoths. There were scads of other, smaller phone companies, each serving other counties or areas. Even in the old days when operators did listen in on calls, they knew better than to adopt company-wide policies to regulate what people talked about and what they said over the phone.

    The *other* way we have faced this before was in the collusion between “competitors” in various industries to control not only prices but also access and *Restraint of Trade* which is what Google & You Tube, Facebook and Twitter have done to Alex Jones, Joe Dan Gorman, and many many many mant more. The anti-trust laws were developed to prevent the kind of thing we all have witnessed the Tech Masters of the Universe doing: making up their own “industry standards” that they all “coincidentally” adopt during “serendipitous” times. Anti-Trust laws “first, restrict the formation of cartels and prohibit other collusive practices regarded as being in restraint of trade. ” These companies have for all intents and purposes become a cartel.

  • The General

    One of my FB friends found a way to fool the algorithms. I’m sure he isn’t the only one who knows how.

  • Trilemma

    I totally agree with you Tom. If these three don’t self-regulate they invite the government to regulate them. What’s different about these three companies is that they provide people a personal space much like a landlord provides a rental house or a bank provides a safe deposit box. My Facebook page is my personal space. A landlord can’t go into the rental house and start throwing out stuff he doesn’t approve of. The bank can’t go into my safe deposit box and throw out stuff they don’t like. I can do whatever I want in these spaces as long as it’s not illegal. This should apply to Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. As long as people aren’t doing anything illegal, these companies shouldn’t be allowed to throw out people’s stuff.

    • Interesting thought, but there are complications. Landlords are allowed to remove dangerous items that pose a danger to other tenants and the apartment building as a whole. It might take a court order, but they can do it, with governmental approval. Social media companies have taken the stance that they have a similar right and responsibility, which they consider themselves to be exercising in the case of Alex Jones. But now the question is, should they be allowed to do it without the state’s agreement? They say yes; others wonder. And if they should be required to get state approval, who in the state should have that role, and on what statutory grounds?

      This is what makes this such an important and challenging problem to solve.

      • Trilemma

        I agree a landlord is expected to maintain a safe environment and address illegal activity. Social media should be expected to do the same. But the landlord can’t come in and remove my Bibles because they offend the person who is Hindu next door. Nor can the landlord evict me without just cause. In either case, I can sue for damages. People on social media have no legal recourse. I think they should have some. Since the internet crosses state lines, it would be the federal government that would be the authority creating policy based primarily on the First Amendment.

        Here’s the problem. The social media companies appear to over moderate based on their personal biases. If the federal government gets too involved with moderation rules, the result will be under moderation and we’ll get more porn on social media. The challenge is to get the right balance of freedom of speech while maintaining a reasonably family friendly social media environment.

    • Andrew Mason

      Except that using your paradigm, the landlords in question have reserved the right to go into your houseapartment at anytime they like, remove furniture they deem objectionable, andor lock you out until you agree to adhere to their tenant policy.

  • swordfish

    I agree that it’s wrong of Google and other tech companies to try and interfere with freedom of speech. Given that, it’s somewhat ironic that many of my recent comments have been put into moderation even though they don’t break your commenting rules in any way that I can work out – for example, my last moderated comment was “Because they’re trying to help?” – surely not offensive in any way.

    • The Stream doesn’t track comments that actively, and did not cause that one to be moderated. Three people flagged it for reasons I don’t know. I’ve approved it now.

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