Too often Internet platforms violate our privacy, arrogantly regulate speech and abuse monopoly power, but it is important to recognize what are and are not problems.
Bigness is not necessarily an issue and often offers resources to propel progress. Facebook is a leader in artificial intelligence research, Google gave us Android, Amazon pioneered cloud computing and Apple is poised to make electric vehicles. Smaller companies lack the billions of dollars necessary to make those kinds of bets.
Unfortunately, the FAAGs too often behave as if run by adolescents and now face antitrust scrutiny. Apple for overcharging app developers, Amazon for strong-arming small businesses on its platform, Google for manipulating ad-space-auctioning software to hobble competitors, and Facebook for acquisitions that allegedly monopolize the social media market.
Facebook may have a monopoly by providing a substantially differentiated digital bulletin board where we can keep up with family and locate lost classmates, but it is a free service making nonexistent direct economic harm to consumers — the sine qua non of modern antitrust enforcement.
In the advertising market, Google has the largest market share. It is noteworthy that the Justice Department has gone after Google, not Facebook, for monopoly abuse in the online ad space.
The Federal Trade Commission suit against Facebook is so wrongheaded that it appears a desperate government attempt to rein in the company owing to gross data privacy misdeeds going back to the Cambridge Analytica and affair and enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. And for the complaints of Democratic and Republican politicians about editorial abuses at both Twitter and Facebook.
Forcing Facebook to divest Instagram and WhatsApp, as the FTC seeks, won’t solve the data mining and privacy problems — that requires legislation similar to the EU General Data Regulation, which requires that users understand and consent to the data collected about them and how it will be used.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides Twitter, Facebook and lessor Internet platforms with expansive legal immunity for the statements and other material users post. It exempts service providers from civil liability for actions “taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” And for providing users with tools to restrict access to such materials.
President-elect Joe Biden wants to revoke those protections and permit websites to be sued, and more generally Democrats would like Twitter, Facebook and others to remove what they view as false information — such as President Trump’s claims that mail-in voting will lead to fraud. Republicans are incensed that Twitter added comments to some Trump tweets warning those statements could be misleading.
All sides appear to miss even bigger problems.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argues lower courts apply Section 230 too expansively. Internet platforms have been found exempt from liability even when they know the content or activity it enables is illegal — for example, child pornography, human trafficking and terrorism.
With millions of daily posts, it is impossible for Twitter and Facebook to catch everything, but they could be compelled — or be held criminally or civilly libel — to remove material they know is illegal or facilitates crimes. And for failing to pre-emptively screen material that could incite civil unrest until the full context of an incident is determined and accurately portrayed.
As for political and other speech, Twitter and other platforms have been accused of an anti-conservative bias in the content they exclude and promotes. This is broadly protected, because the courts do not treat Internet providers as public squares where viewpoint discrimination is impermissible.
Absolute neutrality is impossible but the ruminations of politicians — as long as their posts are not illegal and do not incite illegal assembly, destruction of property or violence — should be left to the intelligence of voters. They may be technology wizards, but Jack Dorsey and other Internet magnates hardly have exhibited the God-anointed wisdom of emperors and popes to judge what ordinary mortals should see and hear.
Most folks can sort falsehoods for themselves, and often what is false is in the eyes of the beholder.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media have become so pervasive that they have become the public square — and legally should be treated as such. Neutral arbitration panels — with equal representation chosen by Republican and Democratic leaders — should oversee editorial decisions to ensure some measure of objectivity.
It’s not perfect, but if you want perfection you will have to wait for the hereafter — St. Peter won’t be facing a primary challenge anytime soon.
• Peter Morici, @pmorici1, is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.