A number of conservative commentators, notably Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, have raised the alarm over the so-called Hi-Tech Threat, i.e. the threat to free speech posed by a censorious Silicon Valley liberal elite which seems intent on eliminating all evidence of right-leaning opinion on their platforms. And those platforms have achieved near monopolistic status, with Google controlling 85 percent of the online advertising market, Facebook enjoying similarly hegemonic status insofar as news delivery, and Twitter rounding out the equation with its increasing claim to the title of America’s town square.
Yet these conservative commentators are ostensible champions of the free market: do they really want the government to take over the internet? This is the question “progressives” are asking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but that’s because they don’t understand the Internet, the history of government regulation of the Internet — or, indeed, anything at all.
The reality is that the hegemonic position of the Hi-Tech giants wasn’t achieved due to anything remotely resembling the “free market” – and the solution has nothing to do with a government takeover of the Internet.
The year was 1996 – the very beginning of the Internet Age. Antiwar.com – one of the earliest web sites – was around, but not very active. The big online power was … Compuserve! Remember them? Congress was frightened to death of this new phenomenon, and naturally the first impulse of these slow-witted solons was to try to regulate it in the name of “decency.” And of course they had to do it for The Children! The Communications Decency Act punished purveyors of pornography with two years in jail plus a $250,000 fine for those found guilty of sending “indecent” material over the Internet to minors.
There were no hearings: why debate something that is so self-evidently wonderful? Who could be for sending online porn directly to the computers of America’s adolescents?
After the Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 for being too vague – and showing, the Court remarked, that lawmakers had no idea about how the Internet actually worked – section 230 of the law remained on the books. This was a special provision written and enacted for the benefit of the corporate entities that were at that moment building the infrastructure that would rapidly become the Internet we know today. The core of the provision is that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The CDA was passed to simultaneously give the impression that Congress was intent on protecting The Children from pornography and that the corporate entities responsible for injecting such filth into people’s homes would be given legal immunity for any undesirable consequences following from that.
Section 230 set online speech on a different legal standard from published-on-dead-tree or spoken speech in that the online version is not subject to traditional common law torts claiming defamation, libel, etc. A newspaper, for example, is held liable for defamation because a degree of editorial control is assumed. A distributor, or common carrier, is not subject to the same legal standard because there is limited editing of content, if any. For example, a phone company cannot be held responsible for defamation if a robo-call campaign inaccurately describes some politician as a child molester.
None of these Hi Tech monster companies would have succeeded without Section 230: the risks would’ve been too great for nervous investors, who would’ve been scared off by the prospect of lawsuits eating away at their profits. They wanted some guarantee that their money would not be wasted and that their investment would pay off. So what to do? The solution was readily apparent to their congressional servitors: carve out an exception to the rules!
This is a recurring feature of life in the Oligarchical States of America: the law is for the little people, like you and me. Those semi-divine giants of Silicon Valley such as Mark Zuckerberg are in a whole different class all by themselves. They aren’t subject to the common law – only us commoners are!
Section 230 was made out to be a great victory for free speech, and was fought for by the American Civil Liberties Union: after all, what would happen if online speech was stopped by a bunch of bothersome lawsuits? Of course, that hadn’t happened with published-on-dead-tree speech, but that’s because editors (and lawyers) exercised editorial control – yet “interactive” Internet entities somehow could not have done the same. Oh no, they had to be granted immunity, i.e. special legal privileges.
This isn’t the free market: it’s crony capitalism.
Thanks to this legal immunity, the Hi Tech giants we see dominating the market today were financed to the tune of billions in freshly-printed Federal Reserve Notes. They grew to gargantuan proportions, and their pretensions as social and ideological arbiters grew even faster. They began to take on the characteristics of publishers without giving up their legal status as neutral “carriers.” They began to pick and choose content, rating it, hiding it, giving preference to some of it and outright censoring others.
And their monopoly over the Internet is as nearly complete as it is possible to be: a few Silicon Valley firms, such as Google and Facebook, determine what the overwhelming majority of Americans see online.
With Congress holding hearings on “foreign influence” meant to purge the Internet of dissenting views, and Big Tech eagerly carrying out this appointed task, the danger to free speech cannot be overemphasized.
The political culture of Silicon Valley was supposed to be “libertarian,” because the Internet is so freewheeling and California is so hippy-dippy. Not so! If there is a more authoritarian political culture than the Bay Area it’s probably New York and DC – but not by much. Just ask James Damore! We must stop them before it’s too late.
How do we do so? It’s simple. Repeal section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and replace it with clear guidelines separating out the nature of a public carrier from a publisher or content originator. If Google, Facebook, and Twitter are curating content provided by others they are still publishers in that they are engaged in selecting what to highlight and what to ignore or hide. In that case, why shouldn’t they be subject to the same legal conditions as, say, Antiwar.com, which does aggregate off-site content as well as publish original material?
If Twitter, for example, wants to exile former diplomat and distinguished author Peter van Buren permanently for daring to disagree with and mock a pack of smug self-satisfied “journalists,” then the company has got to give up its public carrier status and lose its immunity for legal liability. Likewise, if Zuckerberg is going to make the Facebook postings of the Ron Paul Institute nearly inaccessible to its audience.
Today the lords of Silicon Valley are enjoying the benefits of an information cartel: due to their political and financial clout, they were able to bend the rules and grow to monster proportions as a result. Now they are reneging on the conditional nature of their legal immunity and actively seeking to control what content the public gets to see. This tyranny must be crushed in the egg, because what the Zuckerbergs and the Twitter tyrants are hatching is going to be one big nasty ugly bird.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.