- - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Conservatives are hopping mad about Facebook allegedly manipulating its Trending Topics to discriminate against right-leaning news stories. And some want to do something about it. They should count to 10 and take a deep breath.

Last Tuesday, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, South Dakota Republican, fired off a letter asking the company for answers about how it selects stories to feature and what it plans to do about the allegations. The anger among conservatives is understandable, given Facebook employees’ tendency to donate to Democratic politicians and Silicon Valley’s long-standing alignment with progressive causes. But this frustration doesn’t justify federal meddling with Internet companies’ editorial decisions — whether through regulatory mandates or demanding letters from powerful politicians.

Many Republicans in Congress, including Mr. Thune, usually advocate a limited role for government in the Internet and telecommunications sectors. Despite Facebook’s alleged transgressions, conservatives should stick to their principles and resist the temptation to make an example out of the company.

The First Amendment protects decisions by media outlets about the stories they write and the opinions they publish. For example, when the Miami Herald challenged a Florida law requiring newspapers to give candidates space to rebut editorials and endorsements, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn the law.

Similarly, Internet platforms that host expressive content enjoy the right to exercise discretion over the messages they transmit free from governmental interference.

Facebook has categorically denied any ideological bias, releasing its 28-page “trending review guidelines” to show how its staff are supposed to curate trending topics. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited “leading conservatives” to meet with him to discuss the social network’s policies. Of course, conservatives also have the right to quit using Facebook if they don’t believe the company’s denial — though Mr. Zuckerberg’s efforts to make peace indicate that Facebook has no desire to alienate a huge chunk of its user base.

Some Facebook critics, along with Mr. Thune, argue that if the allegations are accurate, the company misled the public — implying that the company may have broken federal law, which makes it illegal for a company to engage in “deceptive acts or practices.” But Facebook has never claimed items featured in Trending Topics are derived solely from their popularity among users.

Moreover, to the extent that Facebook personnel select which stories to designate as “trending,” the company isn’t trying to convince consumers to buy a product. As such, Facebook’s editorial decisions are not commercial speech, which receives less protection under the First Amendment than other forms of speech.

Facebook isn’t the only Internet company embroiled in controversy over its exercise of discretion regarding the messages it transmits. Also last week, Google announced it will no longer allow advertisements for payday loans, which many progressives want to strictly regulate or even ban outright. Like Facebook, Google has taken flack for its decision, which is sure to please the White House and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — both of which are hostile to the payday lending industry.

Is Google unfairly targeting the payday loan industry? Arguably, yes. Payday loans offer an important safety valve for cash-strapped Americans who lack access to other, more affordable lines of credit. But whatever one may think of Google’s action, it is the act of a private company that should be free to determine its own platforms’ terms of use.

Conservatives should resist the temptation to support regulation of these Internet companies, however misguided some of their decisions may seem. To be sure, many of these companies — including Google and Facebook — have argued that Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast don’t have any First Amendment right to limit the messages they transmit. In reality, both the firms that provide Internet platforms and those that connect our homes and devices to the world should be free to manage their networks as they see fit. That is the principled position regarding the government’s role on the Internet — the Constitution demands nothing less.

Ryan Radia is associate director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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