Social media outlets have been filled with commentary this week about the decisions by Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify to remove content created by talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. This is a useful opportunity to clarify what actually counts as “censorship” and what responsibilities that media platforms have to the public.
Facebook, Apple, and Twitter have been more than happy in recent years to shut out conservatives and other “thought criminals,” and while it may have offended me, I have defended their right to manage their services as they see fit, as these entities are private platforms, not governmental bodies. They are incapable of “censoring” in the proper meaning of the term. Censorship is what government does—with force.
But now, members of Congress like Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) are circulating a slate of proposals to regulate content and speech on the Internet. Proposals to regulate what happens in online forums are generally sold as a way to punish or discipline the companies that host them, but users should understand that Facebook, and other large platform of today, would actually benefit from government regulation. While initially inconvenient to comply with, this approach would tend to make them permanent parts of the media landscape, immune to competition. If regulators treat them as essential facilities, then that is what they become, making true competition impossible.
Therefore, we hope that these companies are not working behind the scenes with Sen. Warner on these extraordinarily misguided legislative proposals. These mandatory speech standards, if applied to today’s firms, would assure that no future social media alternatives can emerge to offer a large-scale platform for controversial speech. If this is the goal, and it seems to be, that is an abomination. Sadly, compliance would turn the likes of Google, Facebook, and Apple into entities that I, and other free-market policy advocates, would find difficult to defend. I hope this does not occur.