Social Networks and Net Neutrality: Who Really Threatens Free Speech?
On Wednesday, net neutrality advocates, including mega-corporations Google, Facebook, and Amazon, protested the FCC’s proposed scale back of the net neutrality regulations. Many argued that the regulations are needed to protect free speech from corporate censorship.
For example, the ACLU’s senior tech analyst Jay Stanley stated:
With the power to restrict access and speeds for websites and content of their choosing, corporations like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T will have the power to distort the flow of data and the marketplace of ideas online.
Many of the social media companies made this argument themselves. Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to “block you from seeing certain content.” Google argued that net neutrality was necessary to protect “free expression.” Twitter’s Policy Director Lauren Culbertson further, arguing that “free expression is part of our company DNA,” and without net neutrality, ISPs would prioritize favored websites and “even be able to block content they don’t like.”
In reality, these social media companies are merely projecting their own censorship impulses. There has been no case of a major ISP censoring or slowing down controversial websites. In contrast, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have vague policies that allow them to censor “hate speech,” and apply their supposedly neutral regulations against doxxing, threats, and harassment unevenly.
The ACLU’s Stanley contended that social media companies are different, because legally,
Facebook is a publisher like the New York Times, and like any editor has the right to exercise discretion in what it publishes, or allows others to publish in its pages.
For First Amendment purposes, he is largely correct. However, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants “interactive computer services” (ICS’s) including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, immunity for their users’ content. In contrast, newspaper publishers are held liable for the content of their reporters, columnists, and even their advertisements and classifieds in certain situations.
Congress explicitly granted these companies this immunity based on the finding that ICS’s “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.” Censorship flies in the face of that assumption.
Regardless of one’s views on the FCC’s proposed net neutrality revisions, it is hypocritical to complain about hypothetical future censorship from ISPs while ignoring the rampant ongoing censorship from social media companies.
Mark Epstein is an attorney practicing regulatory and antitrust law. His writings on free speech and social media can be viewed at The Marketplace of Ideas.