In a recent op-ed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote:
“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”
The Internet is unique in history not because it lacked “rules” about free expression, but that it expanded that broadcast freedom to all, not just the few. Facebook, Google, and other social media firms do not “censor”—only government can do that.
A problem arises, though, when private companies call for alliance with government to regulate or police online speech.
Seem far-fetched? Zuckerberg initially signaled openness to regulation a year ago.
Today, Zuckerberg posits that “Regulation could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”
Who decides what is “harmful content” or “hate speech”—or “blasphemy”? Allegedly impartial third parties can have biases of their own; moreover, harm is clearly in the eye of the beholders, a class that will surely expand after any content regulation is implemented.
While Facebook is free to and should establish its own oversight board, the policy imperative is different. Congress must ensure that rest of the Internet is protected from any subsequent regulatory predation or coercive pressure for adoption of speech guidelines beyond what companies do themselves. Large companies would benefit from such regulation, as Zuckerberg himself has acknowledged.
CEI has uniformly defended the technology sector (and every other sector for that matter) against charges of monopoly. There can be no private media monopoly so long as there is no government censorship.
But the government oversight Facebook is calling for would mean that no rival could emerge that addresses controversial ideas of certain politically disapproved kinds of both foreseeable and unforeseeable nature. Such “deplatforming” will be preordained, baked into the ecosystem of new post-Facebook networks that could be created. This development actually would, if fostered by governments, turn Facebook into the so-called “essential facility” that we have argued as a private entity it could never be. Furthermore, Facebook benefitted from immunity from liability under the Communications Decency Act, and other companies still deserve that freedom, as do users.
Facebook’s audience and reach is worldwide. But it has never been appropriate to think of Facebook as an essential facility or public utility. Social media regulation of the kind contemplated today, however, will turn Facebook into just that, relative to prospective competition, and potentially undermine controversial and anonymous speech. In such an environment, policymakers really would undermine the free exchange of ideas, and, yes, censor. But government policies would be the culprit, not the marketplace.
Wayne Crews is vice president for policy and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.