There’s something I think many of us can agree upon: the internet giants need to be cut down to size. Google and Facebook — and maybe Twitter — just simply have too much power. If you’re a liberal or a conservative, you can probably accept that as a premise at this point.
I’d like to focus in on the free-speech aspects of all this for a minute, before circling back to the starting point.
The latest dustup is over the fact that Twitter has permanently blocked Donald Trump’s account. Facebook shut him down until at least the end of his term. This after he used the social media platforms — as he has since before he became President — to sling lies and accusations, and in the case of Wednesday’s riot, possibly to incite violence.
Trump-backers — and remember that half the country voted for him — are inclined to see that as a violation of his free-speech rights. That is not factually correct, in legal terms. Private corporations and individuals can ban or limit speech in any way they want. The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids censorship by the government, not by private parties.
So it’s not a restriction of free speech. It is, in a broader way, censorship, in the same way that any editing is censorship. If you think of it that way, for instance, we at The Mercury censor things every day: We cut and trim stories, and we leave some out, because we think you wouldn’t be interested or it just isn’t important enough. There’s nothing wrong with that. Also, if you wrote a letter to the editor of the paper, we would put it in, but only after we looked it over for appropriateness. For 99 percent of cases, we just run letters as submitted. But we do have length limits, and we do have limits on the frequency with which any one writer can be published. And, more relevantly, we toss into the trash any letters that are libelous, intentionally misleading, or just out-and-out false.
Facebook and Twitter generally don’t work that way. They allow anybody to put anything on their service. They do so protected by a 1996 federal law that says they’re not responsible for what their users post.
As I’ve said in this space before, that’s just fundamentally unfair. Think of it this way: If my buddy wrote on Facebook that his ex-wife was a real jerk who beat up their kids, the ex-wife could sue him for libel, but she couldn’t sue Facebook. If he submitted that as a letter to the editor of The Mercury and we published it (because somebody fell asleep at the switch), she could sue us for millions, and win. That is assuming that she did not, in fact, beat up her kids.
Point is, we are held responsible for anything we publish. Social media giants, which suck up billions of dollars in advertising money that used to support local journalism, get off scot-free.
Facebook wants to ban Donald Trump? Twitter going to screen his Tweets? Well, then they’re making editing decisions based on the content that their service is providing. As I said, that’s legal, and they get to make that call. But then it’s only fair that we really make them responsible for that content.
It’s easy to do. Congress can just fix the law. Done.
If your argument is that you and I and Donald Trump ought to have the right to use social media, because without it we can’t be heard in today’s society, then we’re back to where I started. The problem in that instance is not that Facebook and Twitter are editing their content; the problem is that they’re monopolies. That’s a bigger problem. It can certainly be addressed. But let’s start with a simple one. Just make them take responsibility for their content. We can do it. So can they.