Facebook last week released the first portion of an independent report compiled by former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) addressing allegations of bias against conservatives by the social media firm. The most compelling takeaway from the report is the fact a company commissioned such an investigation in the first place. It seemed the company was directly responding to public pressure. Facebook is proving what conservatives have long argued when it comes to regulation: market pressure works.
Facebook relies on people wanting to use its platform, so one can imagine the honchos at the company most certainly do not want to alienate conservatives, liberals or anyone in between. Silicon Valley elites still have work to do to earn back the trust of wary conservatives, but this report should be one step in the right direction.
Yet, there are loud and growing calls from the right, including elected officials, for the heavy hand of government to intervene – undermining fundamental constitutional principles, limited government, and free market values.
For decades, conservatives correctly argued that government intervention stifles innovation and often favors entrenched interests. Those same economic principles apply equally to the tech sector. Imposing some sort of regulatory scheme to police speech on platforms or plan the tech economy risks would do more to box out competition, solidify the market-share of the same companies conservatives distrust, and, ironically, eliminate these firms’ incentive to care. It’s much easier to capture and convince a handful of unelected government regulators to do your bidding than it is to satisfy individuals making their own decisions.
This brings up another critical problem with conservative calls for tech bias regulation: who are these supposed unbiased bureaucrats to be entrusted with regulating social media companies? Government is comprised of human beings who have their own biases and incentives. These people, the rank-and-file members of the “deep state” Washington bureaucracy, have drawn the ire of the conservative movement for decades. Even now, conservatives rejoice at the Trump administration’s efforts to shrink and reform an out-of-touch administrative state. What a terrible idea to empower these same people to police online speech, as legislation from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and a rumored executive order from President Trump would do.
Another big problem is a constitutional one. The Constitution unambiguously protects free speech from government in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” So it’s particularly distressing when the conservatives, whose namesake is derived from conserving the ideals of the Constitution and the American Revolution, now routinely propose First Amendment-curtailing regulations in their feud with big tech. The First Amendment is quite plainly a restriction on the government, not a mandate to guarantee a soapbox or impose a muzzle.
Yet here we are in this bizarre moment of some conservative voices suggesting Congress revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 prevents companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Ebay, etc. from being held liable for what third parties – like you and me - post to their platforms. This is a reasonable protection, given that it is impossible for these firms to preemptively or flawlessly police the billions of posts and other items uploaded daily. Section 230 is not dissimilar to common sense protections that other industries enjoy. For example, we do not hold automobile manufacturers accountable for driver errors. That unfair burden would grind much personal and economic activity to a halt.
Amending Section 230 to protect political content or replacing Section 230 with a new government bureau would, in effect, create tiers of protected speech. This Animal Farm-approach to free speech, with all speech free but some speech more free, is patently unconstitutional and something conservatives should vehemently reject.
Conservative dissatisfaction with Silicon Valley firms is understandable given the documented leftward lean of their employees and questions about protection of personal data. Conservatives should keep up the pressure on firms like Facebook to provide a social media experience that welcomes, not alienates. A government clampdown would further empower bureaucrats to use the heavy hand of government against conservatives the second that the other side is in charge once again.