It is an unmistakable fact that big tech companies like Google and major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have engaged in a pattern of silencing conservatives. Their alleged reason is that these voices have violated their often vaguely worded “terms of agreement” which everyone blindly clicks “I Agree” in order to gain access to these platforms.
There are those on the Right who view this as a free market problem and that entities like Google, Twitter and Facebook are private businesses. This dovetails into the free market Right’s view that we do not want government getting entangled in the regulation of private enterprises. Many have ventured the view that there is no positive right to free speech “on Twitter or any other private venue.” Diane Katz at the Heritage Institute said, “These private enterprises are not obligated to abide any sort of partisan fairness doctrine.”
Long before Trump hijacked the phrase “fake news” to refer to the mainstream media, Democrats were crying that “misinformation” and “fake news” was being disseminated by conservatives through social media. This is not a hypothetical situation. The International Fact Checking Network relies on something called the Poynter list. That list is stacked with conservative sites and people and Facebook and other sites use that list to deplatform conservative content through their fact-checking systems.
The most recent attacks took on new life after the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016 who accused “fake news,” among a plethora of other reasons, for costing her the election. The call was taken up by Democrats in the House and Senate and tech giants were paraded before the cameras in Congressional hearings. Kamala Harris has said she would endorse a law that would hold social media companies responsible for “hate speech” or “misinformation.” These sentiments were echoed by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.
So let’s pull back the curtains and reveal really what is happening here. Left to their own devices, tech giants do not care about what is disseminated on their platforms as long as there are clicks and advertising dollars to be had. They suddenly became supportive of silencing conservative commentary in response to political pressure.
Getting back to the free market argument, we can use this analogy: It may be arguably legal that a landlord may not renew your lease because you are a Republican. From a business standpoint, it may not make sense, but he might legally have that right. It is his private property and he can rent to whoever he wants as long as it does not discriminate against some protected class (and Republicans are not a protected class). But what if he refuses to rent to a Republican because Democratic bullies in the government put pressure on him? Is this really a free market? Defending such behavior makes a mockery of the free market.
Platforms like Facebook are not cracking down on conservatives because of some epiphany. They are reacting to pressure from elected government officials. It is not voluntary behavior by a private company. When they start to delete conservative voices in response to political pressure, the free market idea is thrown out the door. They are, in effect, acting as government agents engaging in viewpoint discrimination. You cannot be a free market conservative saying Facebook has the “right,” as a private business, to discriminate against conservatives without simultaneously condoning political pressure by Democrats to silence conservatives because that is the reality of the situation.
A second fact is that contrary to Al Gore’s assertion as being the “founder” of the Internet, the Internet came about as a result of research by DARPA- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Taxpayers spent a fortune developing a public marketplace where ideas are exchanged and political advocacy and economic activity occur. As such, that marketplace belongs to the people- not Google, not Facebook, not Twitter, not Amazon! When monopolies establish a stranglehold, how can that be defined as a free market? Especially when they then squeeze out conservatives from participating in that marketplace? Not only is the free market undermined, so are our basic rights and freedoms and one can make a greater case that free political speech takes precedence over a free market that, in reality, is not all that free. At the very least, a very high bar must be set for any company seeking to silence anyone.
Regulating these entities as public utilities has its pitfalls. It would invite even more government into the equation, never a good idea. However, there is a solution or two. Companies that engage in viewpoint discrimination, especially in response to government pressure, are acting as government agents. They should be investigated for possible civil rights violations. Oddly, liberals have abandoned the Public Forum Doctrine in favor of censorship. In Packingham vs. North Carolina, the Supreme Court said it best: “A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen.” If the Public Forum Doctrine can apply to a private mall, it can certainly apply to private companies on the Internet. When dot com companies get so big that they can effectively neutralize free speech, especially political speech, they are public forums.
But, even assuming a company was under no governmental pressure to “do something,” once they become so large, they can inflict damage all by themselves against First Amendment rights. Once they grow in size, they would come under the Public Forum Doctrine. A site like Redstate can rightfully discourage or even ban commentary that is pro-choice just like DailyKos can do the same to pro-life voices. The difference is that neither is as large as Google, Facebook or Twitter. In effect, Redstate and DailyKos are not sufficiently large enough to stifle free speech. Neither Redstate nor DailyKos have a stranglehold on political discourse market share.
An America where free speech technically existed, but did not in reality, is not America. A government that allows free speech to be stifled whether the proffered reason is the free market or suppression of speech through vaguely defined terms like “hate speech” has no right to exist. The government exists to protect basic rights.
Imagine if a private company took control of the roads tomorrow, they would probably do a better job of maintaining them than the government. That is a free market idea. Now imagine if that company closed the roads to any conservative on Election Day. That is the Internet today. The election would be a mockery and the resulting government a tyranny.
Protecting freedom of speech is not an abandonment of conservative principles. Condoning viewpoint discrimination by invoking the free market is not conservative. Without free speech, there are no conservative principles, including the free market. A free market nation without freedom of speech is a mockery of America. Instead, it is an oligarchy which is basically the state of affairs on the Internet.
Conservatives must be aware and stand against government regulatory control of the Internet. The result would be a deeper, more pervasive control of content and censorship. By the same token, conservatives should be aware that the free market will not correct the wrongs. Even if Google were broken apart tomorrow, there is a highly Leftist tech industry that would toe the same censorship line. Instead of one big Google doing it, there would be a multitude of Googles doing the same thing.
There are existing tools and among them are civil rights litigation, antitrust laws and the Public Forum Doctrine. It will be a long and hard fought, but through it all conservatives must be steadfast in their desire to make the Internet free of political censorship. We have a right to free speech on the Internet. We have sunk a fortune into its development and it belongs to the people. It does not belong to the Left, or the Right for that matter. It belongs to us all.