Last week, Facebook permanently blocked the accounts of a motley assortment of conservatives, libertarians, and anti-Semites. This set the Internet, especially the free speech loving parts of the Internet, in an uproar. (That would include me.)
Conservatives, who normally cheer for deregulation, demanded the government start regulating social media. This includes two that Facebook booted. Alex Jones predictably and literally screamed for it (no, really; I looked in on the InfoWars website, which still exists, and there he was, screaming for regulation), while Paul Joseph Watson asked, “When are we going see any kind of sensible kind of regulations or laws to stop this?”
We might see them faster than you’d think. Social media critic and free speech liberal Tim Pool is very enthused about a couple of laws in California and in Texas that would indeed make “social media censorship illegal.” They were introduced earlier this year, February in California and last month in Texas.
So, if you’re in favor of free speech, that’s a good thing, right? Not so fast.
Among those who have been calling for regulation of Facebook is someone you might not expect: Mark Zuckerberg.
No, this isn’t a joke. I’m perfectly serious. I wasn’t even surprised by the news when it came out last month. If you know enough about giant corporations and the giant bureaucracies that regulate them, you aren’t surprised, either. Last month, I went on at great length explaining why it was a bad idea. (I encourage you to read that piece.)
If you call for a law that “guarantees” that Facebook not ban people for political reasons, your public servants will not stop there, and they might not do that at all. They will inevitably create a new three-letter agency, which we, also inevitably, will soon call words with four letters. Its purview will not be “stop Facebook from banning Republicans for political reasons.” Governments rarely pass legislation aimed at individual corporations, and rarely do they limit themselves to such narrow purposes as “stop banning Republicans for political reasons.” No, its purview will, soon enough, be “to regulate Internet content for fairness” or something equally broad.
If you’re conservative, think about that being implemented by the state of California. If you’re liberal, think how Texas will implement it. Or, if you’re from either side, think about the risks inherent in a federal Internet content regulator.
We must not let this horse out of the barn. It would be potentially disastrous.
A federal Internet content regulator (the phrase is chilling) will doubtless be staffed by former “moderation” executives from Facebook and Twitter, as well as academics who specialize in Internet policy (almost 100% left-wing) and lawyers who specialize in Internet law (ditto).
Approximately half of the laws passed for this agency, at the federal level, will be passed by the Democratic Party; in California, 100% of them will be. Surely well over half of the language of any federal regulations will be crafted by Democratic bureaucrats.
Think about all those bright, progressive Internet activists, the ones who call for Facebook to shut down “hate speech” under its ever-expanding definition. Where do you think they will want to go to work, to make a difference in the world?
And Democrats: imagine what damage the agency might do if staffed by Trump appointees. You often complain about Trump’s attacks on free speech. Imagine if a Trumpist appointee were responsible for a newly-empowered bureaucracy that picks winners and losers whenever someone complains that somebody else should (or should not) be banned.
Still, don’t be surprised if the Democratic-controlled House passes an “Internet fairness” bill with a half-hearted protest at best. The California bill made it through several votes and readings in committee with no protests at all; and remember, California has a supermajority of Democrats. Some of them might eventually put on a show of resistance, but the votes will not be hard to find. Sure, sure, they’ll say to each other: we’ll make the Internet fair. (Seriously, the Republican who proposed this bill must be an idiot.) The Texas bill got push-back from Democrats—doubtless because they knew they wouldn’t be operating the regulatory apparatus—but still passed 18-12. Votes were almost perfectly along party lines. That is very telling: both California Democrats and Texas Republicans are fine with trying to be Facebook’s referee, presumably because it empowers them to regulate political speech. And what if they make different calls? Surely the federal government will have to step in.
So suppose a federal measure is passed. Once that horse has left the barn, Democrats will very reasonably suggest sensible, pragmatic regulations that prevent disinformation, fascism, bullying, Russian meddling, and other Bad Things. Who could oppose such eminently reasonable regulations?
After all, if the Republicans pass this law to prevent themselves from being banned, Democrats will expect something in return. What, you thought this body of law will forevermore be stamped “Republican” if Trump signs it? Not likely. That’s not how it works. You must expect the other side to tweak whatever you pass; that’s what happened to Obamacare, to take the most obvious example.
Look, this situation perfectly illustrates why we have an enormous government today. There’s a problem; both sides agree that the government oughta do something about it; so laws are passed, and refined, and a body of regulations and agencies to write and enforce them are created, and grown, and funded.
Do you really think that, in the end, our speech will be freer? Take the long view. The chances are basically zero.
You know I’m right. Don’t be a fool. Think this through.
There’s another reason to oppose Internet regulations: they require expert lawyers and engineers on staff to guarantee compliance. This will substantially increase the difficulty of making a website, which, having once been possible for kids to create in their basements or dorm rooms, will be out of their reach. As with businesses of old, it will be possible to start one only with substantial capital.
Oh, sure—for a while, the rules might be applied only to websites over a certain size. But you know how it goes: regulatory agencies will expand their scope. The usual suspects will spot “loopholes” in the laws that permit “unregulated and abusive” smaller websites.
“Oh, but that won’t happen,” you say, “because we’re proposing a law that will make free speech stronger!” No. Haven’t we learned this yet? Your intentions for a new type of law will not determine the shape of that area of law in the long run. Government takes on a life of its own. The only question we need ask ourselves is: “Do we want to ‘go there’ at all?”
The answer is no, we don’t. You are proposing a law that empowers government drones to supervise censorship by corporations and make it “fair,” effectively controlling content, and making it official who may and who may not participate in the public square, and under what circumstances. You know what that sounds like to me? A censor.
This is a terrible idea. It will have precisely the opposite effect to the one you want it to have. That’s why Zuckerberg is now encouraging more regulation and was perfectly happy to work with Angela Merkle four years ago, which became the NetzDG law. Regulating social media is precisely what the would-be censors, similar to the German ones, have proposed in the U.K.
Those are the horror stories free speech defenders tell their children. And you are rushing madly in the same direction because you think you can control the government. Well, good luck with that.