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Cautiously Optimistic about Facebook's New Approach to Speech

It seems increasingly the case that there is a lot more to like about what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has to say than not. His recent speech at Georgetown University, outlining the company’s general direction when it comes to content moderation, is no exception.

A first impression from the remarks is Mr. Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook’s leadership have clearly been listening to users and customers. Their response is sincere. In short, Facebook is still subject to market forces. Without even discussing the substance of Mr. Zuckerberg’s remarks or knowing how effective the specific policy changes he discussed will be, this is still a great sign for consumers.

Some may say that Facebook’s actions are merely a response to political pressure. This argument doesn’t hold water considering new criticisms from the political class have already emerged. This isn’t to say Mr. Zuckerberg’s remarks were without political motivation. The speech was delivered in Washington, D.C. after all. Without a doubt, the hope was to quell some concerns on Capitol Hill and within the Trump administration. However, the speech was delivered at a university, before an audience comprised mostly of college students. All of the questions at the end were also submitted by college students.

It may come as a surprise to some, but Facebook’s core platform is struggling (relatively) with this demographic. Per a recent report in Quartz, “Surveys have consistently shown that—with some exceptions—the youngest generation shuns Facebook in favor of other platforms, including the Facebook owned-Instagram.” There are any number of venues in Washington Mr. Zuckerberg could have chosen to make a purely political statement. Choosing Georgetown University shows he’s more concerned about market forces than political ones.

This responsiveness to consumer demands, not just political pressure, undermines the case for antitrust and other regulatory efforts being brought against Facebook and the tech sector at large. U.S. antitrust law is still grounded in the consumer welfare standard. Mr. Zuckerberg can’t lower the price of his no-cost service to users. He can, however, make investments to improve their experience. As he pointed out in his speech, Facebook’s security budget alone is now larger than the entire revenue of the company at the time of its IPO just seven years ago.

This investment in the user experience is also beneficial to the true customers of Facebook, advertisers. A better, more-secure user experience means more eyes and ears for advertisers to reach, improving their consumer welfare as well. In sum, this isn’t the behavior of a monopolistic firm with little-to-nothing to lose.

As far as the substance of the policy changes Mr. Zuckerberg outlined, the overall theme can be summed up like this: emphasizing speech quantity gives us the best chance of improving speech quality. Interspersed in the speech, Mr. Zuckerberg declared three basic policy shifts for Facebook.

First, Facebook will be putting more of an emphasis on verifying the authenticity of speakers on their platform versus the content of their speech. This means that some content that would have previously been taken down might now remain, so long as Facebook can clearly identify the user who posted that content. Second, Facebook will not remove or disallow political ads besides those which may directly incite violence or create other imminent harms. Finally, Facebook is establishing an independent oversight board and appeals process to adjudicate content decisions, with its decisions binding upon the company.

There is certainly a lot to like. Giving people more opportunities to speak and presenting them with greater amounts of information is admirable. These principles are rooted in the American tradition of a free and open society, demonstrating why it is so important that the U.S. continues to be the global hub for technology companies and their incredible innovations.

That all being said, for as much as there is to like about these changes to Facebook’s internal policies, we ought not let them become intertwined with public policy. What is ostensibly good for Facebook and its users is not necessarily good for other tech platforms or free speech and expression as a whole. What is best is for government to remain restricted in terms of regulating speech, allowing multiple companies to set differing standards. In turn, this allows consumers to vote with their mouse and keyboard as to which platforms’ content and forums are best.

Facebook’s new policy approach is an expression of the company’s own speech and association rights and should be nothing more. It would behoove both Facebook and their critics (on both sides of the aisle) to remember this point.

The inability of some free speech advocates to remember this distinction under Facebook’s previous policies has created a tradeoff that would be unacceptable as a public policy. Facebook will allow more content. It will come at the cost of anonymous speech on its platforms, however, as the company turns its focus from content moderation to verifying speaker identities. Anonymous speech has been an important part of the American free speech tradition since Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Federalist Papers. Of course, Facebook is free to change the terms of service of its platform, but this tradeoff is not something we ought to want to see expand into a broad-based norm or model for public policy.

Facebook itself ought to be careful in discussing its new approach to speech on its platforms as well. As Mr. Zuckerberg correctly pointed out in his speech, the First Amendment is a restriction on government, not an obligation on private companies to protect the speech and association rights of consumers. However, Mr. Zuckerberg continued to invoke the First Amendment and various court cases not as justifications for the company’s own right to set policies for its platforms, but why it will allow its users to generate and see more content.

As admirable as Facebook’s new speech policies may be, invoking the First Amendment and other language of government as some sort of binding precedent for your own policies only invites the government into the arena. When Facebook uses the language of government to couch its actions, it puts a “foxes welcome” sign on the henhouse. Again, Facebook needs to make clear it is exerting its own freedoms, not extending First Amendment protections to its users. 

Overall, it is clear that Mr. Zuckerberg has put a lot of thought and care into Facebook’s new direction on speech and expression. These efforts should ultimately be commended and are a sign that further regulation, even at Facebook’s request, is unnecessary. For Facebook to continue to evolve on these issues in a positive direction, the company must realize that its own freedoms are as worth defending as those of their users.