Anger at social media companies’ treatment of those with dissenting political views is causing some to support expanding government control over the Internet by reclassifying social media firms as “common carriers.”
Common carriers are businesses that transmit certain “virtual” goods to consumers. Examples of common carriers are railroads and electric companies. These businesses are considered too important to be allowed to operate absent government regulations that ensure they serve all potential customers equally while making a “reasonable” (as determined by government) profit.
In return for submitting to government regulations, these companies often enjoy a de facto monopoly. Sometimes you just can’t avoid them, like when New York realized competing subway systems was a terrible idea.
Conservatives who support redefining social media companies as common carriers claim that some tech giants have become so dominant that they are immune from competition, and this must be controlled via government intervention. They also mirror progressive’s efforts to reclassify media companies as common carriers. They claim that access to social media is a necessity of modern life that should be regulated by the government in order to guarantee equal access for all. Many conservatives think that as a common carrier, social media platforms would have to give access to all points of view and not ban anyone, regardless of ideology, from their platforms.
One problem with these proposals is it would violate these companies’ First Amendment right to not be forced to provide a platform for speech they, or the majority of their platform’s users, find objectionable. This is not a theoretical concern, rather a requirement forcing companies to allow all views to be heard. This would include racists, sexists, and those wishing to post images of extreme violence and even pornography on their platforms. This would likely lead to legislators, judges, and bureaucrats deciding what speech is acceptable for Internet companies to block from their platforms. Given how many bureaucrats view all conservative speech as “hate” speech; there would thus likely be more silencing of conservatives online.
Treating social media platforms as common carriers would mean social media companies would become as innovative and dedicated to customer service as the gas or electric company. This is because the regulations would likely force social media companies to offer a uniform product in order to avoid providing something that could in any way be seen as favoring one user over another.
Common carrier designation would not hurt existing tech companies, but the newer company emerging to challenge the big tech companies. Contrary to pro-regulation conservative fears, these companies can and will force the existing big companies to be more responsive to their consumer’s needs or see their market share erode. For example, Facebook lost 1 million users last year, many of whom are young people who are using TikTok instead of Facebook. Meanwhile, other Facebook users are abandoning, or at limiting their use of, Facebook in favor of other social media platforms even causing their stock to fall significantly. Many of these platform’s market themselves as more pro-speech than the established social media platforms.
An exciting development in the world of social media is the rise of open source self-help platforms that use blockchain and crypto currency to create open-source code that, in the words of Dan Greenberg and Jessica Melugin of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (authors of a must-read paper on this issue) allows users to “See how the algorithm works; allowing for decentralized control with no central authority dictating the rules. Neither Facebook, Twitter, nor any corporate entity acts as a content moderator on decentralized media; that control is held by the users themselves.” And, investment in new technologies in social media are growing. For example, there was a recent $300 million investment in BitClout spill media “app” that uses the Decentralized Social blockchain.
Giving consumers more control over what information they receive and share is the future of social media. Today’s dominant companies will either have to adapt, die, or hope that the conservatives, moderates, and liberals who still believe in classical liberalism will “punish” them by imposing new rules and regulation that stifle innovation and growth, allowing existing big companies to remain on top. This may make conservative politicians happy in the short term, but it will not further the cause of free speech in the long term and it will deny consumers new technologies that put them in charge of the information they share and receive on social media.