We are (thankfully) protected by the First Amendment in these United States, so that we can state our opinion and the government cannot censor us or otherwise punish us for our speech. This is true no matter how vile our speech may be, and no matter how morally depraved our opinions are. But many people are still censored by social media policies – sometimes when content posted does not even violate written Terms of Service. A new argument has arisen on the populist Right: Should government prohibit social media companies from censoring opinions they do not like?
First, the argument that the First Amendment protects the “public square” of the Internet is legally indefensible. The First Amendment was never intended to police what private entities allow on their platforms. Newspapers that owned a printing press were not obligated to print anything they did not want to print, and that principle carries over to the digital realm. So the question is whether it is good policy for the government to take additional steps to protect free speech online.
Some would argue that it would be good policy to limit social media’s policing of opinions, because social media policies threaten to strangle the free exchange of ideas. This will only lead to more polarization and tribalism as people are driven to alternative platforms, and is harmful to democracy as even reasonable conservative opinions are lumped in with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
We have a question we need to answer. Who do you trust less: Big Tech or Big Government? If censorship on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube become too onerous, users can always go to alternative platforms like Gab. My reach would be less, but I can speak freely. But if the government has the authority to tell social media companies what content they must allow, the government also has the authority to tell social media companies what content they may not allow. This is quite common in both Western “democracies” and Islamic states run by Sharia Law. I do not trust government to have this power.
I say we should trust the market. The coming decentralization of social media away from Facebook, Twitter and Google is a good thing. And it will be driven by users leaving those platforms for different ones with better policies, better enforcement of their Terms of Service (including not deleting content allowed by the TOS) and a more clear and understandable set of policies. Perhaps we will see a revival of the blogosphere, perhaps Gab will grow, or perhaps more platforms will become available. But we should not hand social media policy to a bunch of politicians who do not understand the platforms at all.