Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes made big waves last week with his long New York Times piece calling for the company’s breakup. The feds should at least take a hard look at doing that — but they definitely must avoid the idea that Hughes actually shares with Mark Zuckerberg: having the government set standards for social-media content.
All that would do is bail out Facebook from having to handle an inherent problem in its business model — and threaten basic free-speech protections for all Americans.
The breakup idea is in keeping with the traditional federal approach to monopolies: Hughes argues that the Obama-era Federal Trade Commission was wrong to let Facebook buy WhatsApp and Instagram, two companies that challenged its dominance of social media. Critics from right (Sen. Ted Cruz) to left (Sen. Liz Warren) agree.
But Hughes’ other fix is utterly non-traditional — and perilous. He wants Congress to create a new regulatory agency to oversee tech firms to protect privacy and “basic interoperability” across competing platforms.
Oh, and to “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.”
Sorry: Social media firms are publishers. And the American approach to publishers is to let them decide their own content, holding them legally responsible only for issues like libel. It’s up to consumers to police a company’s decisions on content — by not consuming what they disapprove of.
If you’re upset that Facebook banned Louis Farrakhan and others, delete your account. Same if you dislike what it does permit.
Traditional publishers have always grappled with these issues. The editors of this newspaper decide what to print, and live with the consequences. Readers cancel their subscriptions all the time.
The problem for Facebook, etc., is that all their content is user-generated. Where traditional media pay professionals to write and edit our content, social media get the general public to do the work. That saves a ton of cash — but means the “platform” is primed to put up an endless amount of stuff no regular publisher would ever let pass.
Hiring moderators to remove posts gets expensive awfully fast when billions of users as putting up content 24/7/365. And, yes, you have to decide what language, manners and opinions you don’t choose to accept. Some consumers will quit because of what you forbid, others because of what you allow.
Of course Zuckerberg wants Uncle Sam to make the decisions: It’ll save him a ton of money, and give him an easy out when people question the standards. That’s why the heads of Apple, Google and Twitter all join Facebook in wanting to “help” the government write such regulations.
As an added bonus, heavy federal oversight protects established players against new competition, since any small player trying to enter the field immediately needs to hire lots of lawyers, government-relation professionals and lobbyists to even start doing business.
‘There is no constitutional right to harass others,” Hughes argues, but the law already describes what counts as actual harassment. Anything more recalls the movement sweeping America’s campuses — a bid to silence those expressing “the wrong” ideas.
This is why this nation’s founders drew a firm line against government regulation of publishers a k a the press: It’s called the First Amendment.
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