There is a growing drumbeat for tech regulation coming from the establishment, the latest example being Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff’s call, made at Davos, for the world to “wake up to the threat from tech giants.” But what kind of regulation are they looking for?
Benioff compared the tech giants to tobacco companies, suggesting that their product is “addictive” and in some cases “bad for people” before alluding to the “manipulation” of elections by “outside forces.”
“I think you’d do it exactly the same way you’d regulate the cigarette industry. You know, here’s a product, cigarettes, they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces getting you to do different things …”
The Salesforce.com CEO’s comments echo the narrative of the left, which is that “fake news,” spread through social media and financed by Russia, put Donald Trump in the White House. Aside from the inflated claims and Red Scare-level establishment panic, the subtext of the argument is that users of social media platforms can’t be trusted to choose what information they receive. Unless social media companies limit access to information, they will be manipulated by hostile forces (and many on the left consider Breitbart News and the alternative media to be synonymous with “fake news.”)
It’s a narrative that says the free flow of information is dangerous, because voters are stupid and easily misinformed. It’s a narrative hostile to the idea of human rationality, one that says free speech and the free marketplace of ideas are flawed, because human beings — given the chance — will choose bad speech and bad ideas. Instead, governments and Silicon Valley gatekeepers should act as enlightened overlords, deciding what information the mentally feeble users receive. Rupert Murdoch expressed this opinion last week, when he said Facebook and other social media platforms should pay reputable new sources to atone for the crime of spreading “scurrilous news sources,” referring to the alternative media.
The right wants regulation too, but of a very different kind. Multiple right-wing commentators have called for Google and Facebook, whose market share eclipses old 20th-century monopolies like Standard Oil and the Bell System, to be regulated like utilities.
The impetus is the threat of political bias from companies that now have more influence over the flow of news and information than any other company in history. Facebook, through a recent change to its news feed algorithm, threatens to undercut the success of new media outlets. Google, by tweaking its search results, could swing an election anywhere in the world. Twitter has been the birthplace of entire political movements.
Yet all of these companies are subject to less regulation on viewpoint neutrality than a small-time radio or TV broadcast station, which are subject to the equal time rule (not to be confused with the Fairness Doctrine.) This states that broadcast stations must give equal and equivalent airtime to political candidates who request it. Give a Democrat five minutes, and you have to give his opponent five minutes too.
Unlike Benioff’s suggestion, the equal time rule weakens rather than strengthens the power of information gatekeepers, limiting their ability to choose what the public sees. Instead of one “unbiased” source who claims to offer the whole truth without bias (arguably an impossible feat for anyone, let alone a mainstream news company), the public will see two competing sets of partisan information, and decide for themselves which one rings true. It’s regulation that affirms, rather than denigrates, the intelligence of voters.
Tech companies, despite having political influence that vastly exceed a single T.V or radio station, are subject to no such rule, which means they can kick off or censor political candidates at will — as they’ve done to Roger Stone and Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
In addition to the utility argument, which would subject the tech giants to similar rules on content neutrality that were previously applied to ISPs under Title II regulations, conservatives have also suggested tying social media company’s legal immunity to viewpoint neutrality. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts social media companies from legal liability for posts made by their users — without this protection, there is no way the tech giants could have grown to the size that they have achieved.
The legislation was written with the justification that the Internet offers a forum for “true diversity of political discourse,” and the “user control over what information is received by individuals” must be maximized. Conservatives want to tie the immunity more closely to its justification; if social media companies fail to deliver political diversity (say, by banning their prominent conservative users, as Twitter has done), then they lose the protection of Section 230.
Facebook, by insisting on ranking news content via an algorithm that favors so-called “broadly trusted” sources, instead of letting users decide what they see, is also violating the spirit of Section 230. They aren’t maximizing user control over the information they receive. As with political diversity, this could again be strengthened so that tech companies that meddle too much in their users’ ability to choose their own information sources without giving them a chance to opt-out should also lose the protections of section 230.
This, unlike the “solutions” suggested by the left, is again a type of regulation based on an optimistic view of users’ intelligence. The subtext is that users can be trusted to choose their own information sources, without the need to be protected from nefarious influences by Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
The elites at Davos, terrified of the unwashed masses, don’t think users can be trusted. They’re terrified of the choices being made by ordinary people, from the sites they read to the candidates they vote for, and they desperately want to regain control. Unable to countenance that their worldview might be flawed, they’ve convinced themselves that voters are stupid, and led astray by “fake news.”
Heck, even if they’re right and voters are morons, that doesn’t imply the elites are geniuses by process of elimination. They might be even bigger morons! The reason we have free speech isn’t that everyone is perfectly rational, but because no-one is, and therefore no-one should be allowed to go unchallenged. That’s why restoring their ability to control the flow of information, something now being loudly demanded by the left, must be opposed at all costs. Censorship is caused by people who believe that everyone except themselves are idiots.