In light of Facebook’s banning of Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer and others including Louis Farrakhan, it’s time we decide who is the final arbiter of free speech in America: private corporations or the people’s duly elected representatives. As is usual in Washington, the problems we are experiencing today are problems created by Washington years ago.
Exceptions were made, spaces created for tech and social media companies to grow unencumbered via the Section 230 exemption inside the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Allowed to play by different rules under the now absurd illusion that they’re not publishers or telecommunications companies, the Facebooks and Googles, Twitters and Amazons of the world have avoided a great deal of oversight and regulation.
Now as they’ve grown into the behemoths and monopolies they are today, they still insist they are anything but publishers and telecommunications companies as they create original content, curate and make editorial decisions and deploy broadband networks. We often get into trouble in life when we fail to define things properly, and you might say these companies look like a duck, quack like a duck, but self-identify as donkeys and the officials in Washington whose re-election efforts are funded by the tech companies nod and say, “Why, yes, you’re donkeys” when every objective person knows that’s patently false. When nothing makes sense in Washington, when it’s obvious the sky is blue and Swamp Dwellers want to tell you it’s green, just follow the money and everything makes sense.
There are absurd arguments being tossed about by some conservatives that “Private companies can do whatever they want” or “We don’t want more government regulation!” Pause for a moment and consider that argument for private restaurants denying people of color service because they were the wrong skin color. We, of course, know that behavior was a gross violation of blacks’ civil rights. In the same way, as Will Chamberlin has astutely noted, “We, as a society, do not have to allow private companies to violate Americans’ civil rights.”
On the matter of regulation, there is no new regulation by removing the Section 230 exemption for these companies: they merely get to play by the exact same rules, with the exact same oversight and regulations as every other publisher and telecommunications company. This has everything to do with fairness and leveling the playing field so that everyone plays by the exact same rules as the free market is, in theory, supposed to work.
The “rule by algorithm can be just as stringent as any rule by a dictator, perhaps even more so as it is vague, faceless, and hard to define.” Nor should we ignore the reality that very likely Google is, every day, collecting and storing more personally identifiable data than the NSA, or that in addition to Google, companies like Facebook and Amazon are collecting data to accelerate their development on machine learning and artificial intelligence, both specific and general that will lead to automation and displace American workers.
We can live with the happy fiction that somehow these companies are still simply neutral platforms, or we can demand that our elected officials take our rights seriously. The fix is simple. The question is whether enough of our representatives have the political courage to act.