Regulatory Policy

Property Rights and Infinite Cyberspace

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If Republicans can rediscover their fortitude, we are likely to witness the emergence of larger, decentralized online social-media platforms.

What is the one force that can prevent the purported Big Tech villains such as Facebook and Google from being displaced as the dominant platforms? Republicans.

Normally, those on the right would trust markets to come up with an answer to their frustrations over suppression of conservative voices in media.

Back in 2007, the Guardian ran the headline, “Will MySpace Ever Lose Its Monopoly?” Everybody laughed — for a while.

Now, many conservatives suffering from a crisis of faith in creative destruction are supporting policies that would perversely bring about the political suppression of their speech by handing powers over to the likes of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to certify whatever political neutrality is.

Yet the MySpace lesson still holds. Today, you’d have to explain to the young folks who’ve ditched Facebook for TikTok and other apps what MySpace even was.

Decades of leftist dominance in schools, entertainment, and news media have many on the right worried that they’re on the losing side of a culture war in the social-media space, too. Conservatives are feeling shut out by “woke” boardrooms and discriminated against on the biggest social-media platforms.

In response, Republicans are circulating a package of legislative proposals spanning heightened antitrust regulation, stripping the biggest social-media companies of their liability protections for content posted by third parties, and even corporate breakup.

But to equate cancel culture with censorship and to respond with legislation that would greatly expand regulation online misunderstands the nature of both the Internet and the government, with consequences that are as unattractive as they are unnecessary.

The Left, rest assured, is rejoicing that panic is spurring conservatives to override their traditional allegiances to property rights and limited government.

Somehow, conservatives had best come back around to the realization that a non-depletable Internet cannot be monopolized unless the government circumscribes it. Once the government starts calling the shots by either forcing or blocking, that becomes the censorship. That Facebook wants regulation should be a gigantic red flag. It would be part of any legislative resolution, and be the dominant social network forever. After all, Jen Psaki told us so. “You shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others for providing misinformation out there” was how she put it at a recent briefing.

Control, content removal or promotion, algorithm refinement, and the like are not coercion or censorship, but rather exercises of the free speech of the businesses that own the platforms themselves.

The imperative is to ensure that future conservative-oriented platforms are able to retain those very same freedoms.

That is where every bit of the Right’s energy should go, but sadly, some conservatives are heading in a very different direction. Censorship requires government force to either block (see legislation from congressional Democrats) or compel speech (see legislation from congressional Republicans).

House Republicans should remember that while someone has a right to speak, no one exercising that right has a right to force others to supply them with a web platform, newspaper, venue, or microphone. The Constitution places limits on state actors, not private companies, which is what, as the courts have affirmed, these platforms remain, no matter how large, successful, or public-facing they are.

These vital First Amendment principles apply to government, not to the population generally or to communications enabled by private companies. There can be no private media monopoly so long as there is no government censorship.

Big Tech cannot stop anyone from reaching anyone else and sharing ideas, but, perversely, some conservatives seem ready to enable government to do so. If one thing is certain, it’s that conservatives will not decide what counts as objectivity at a future FTC and FCC.

We all ought to remember that “social media” is plural: Facebook, as an entity, is a singular social medium; ditto Twitter. So were now-displaced transitory giants such as MySpace and America Online.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are not the entirety of the Internet today: Made of ones and zeros and potentially infinite as far as humanity is concerned, it is Internet technology as such, not those who happen to be using it in their business at any given moment, that matters.

What’s more, media need not be “social” to be mass; alternative non-social media on the right, such as the Drudge Report, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and, of course, right-leaning talk radio continue to be highly influential sources of information. Semi-social conduits such as comment sections in news articles may exceed some social-media platforms in reach.

In the frenzy of the content-moderation debate, legislators forget that Facebook and Google are the gauzy film atop the deeper actual Internet. One can be a “never Googler,” as the rapid growth of the privacy-protecting search engine DuckDuckGo indicates, or innovate a whole new means of communication, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of Zoom during the COVID quarantine.

Social-media trends fluctuate; Clubhouse and TikTok recently hit the three-billion downloads mark. Most of the deeper Internet is not accessible to today’s Big Tech, which includes the deep (dark) web. And it all remains open and available for innovation, alternative viewpoints, and new and yet-to-be-invented alternate platforms for third-party speech.

Unless, that is, regulation cements the status quo in place. Today’s Big Tech will happily accept regulation in exchange for permanence.

If Republicans can rediscover their fortitude, we are likely to witness the emergence of larger, decentralized online social-media platforms. Discrimination and bias are, in an important sense, the essence of healthy debate, and mandating neutrality by diminishing platforms’ independence would remove the right of conservatives to “discriminate” on potentially dominant alternative platforms that could emerge in coming years or decades.

With respect to its very limited role in Internet governance, the core public-policy duty for Congress ought to be to foster the creation and expansion of private-property rights and communications wealth on existing and future platforms. Conservatives who turn their backs on private-property rights in social-media disputes over bias will render themselves defenseless against leftist resistance to property rights not just in media, but in other policy debates too. Yielding on core principles can serve to score shortsighted political points, but it makes the expansion of the institutions of liberty — and conservative ideas — far more difficult in the future.

Jessica Melugin is Director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where Wayne Crews is Vice President for Policy.

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