Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes came out strongly against his own company, saying that it has more power than any single organization should. He urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to break up Facebook into smaller companies to eliminate its monopoly power.
Why not regulate the internet instead?
The Silicon Valley behemoth faces such criticism all the time, but that the critic is a company insider is unusual, and Facebook, therefore, had to respond. Its counterproposal: Why not regulate the internet instead?
The company’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said in a statement that “Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability,” but “you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company.” He suggested instead the “introduction of new rules for the internet,” echoing CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s earlier call for greater government involvement.
What is going on? Does Facebook really want to have less control over itself, or does it have an ulterior motive?
Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, big corporations prefer regulations over a free market because it protects them from competition from smaller and nimbler companies. In order to abide by regulations, a company needs to hire lawyers and bureaucrats dedicated to keeping up with the red tape. For small actors, this hurdle becomes too high to leap. They cannot afford the extra overhead.
Large corporations like Facebook, however, earn enough to hire armies of lawyers to do their bidding. In addition, they can afford lobbyists in Washington D.C. to influence policymakers to make the regulations that just happen to coincide with practices that they already comply with, but which will incur crippling expenses on smaller competitors.
Thus, when Facebook shows such eagerness to be regulated by the government, it may not just be out of fear over a potential break-up. The social media giant might also be afraid of leaner competitors, such as MeWe, Minds, and Gab.
Bill of Rights
While old-fashioned regulations are probably a bad idea, there is a case to be made for an internet bill of rights. Unlike regulations, they give legal and preferably constitutional protection of speech on the internet on par with speech elsewhere.
The idea is that social media are now no longer just a convenience. A company’s success and even elections are, to a significant degree, determined by social media practice. In the limited case of President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, the courts have recognized this by ruling it a public square. Trump, therefore, cannot ban people. The internet and social media are now so pervasive in the modern world that they are on par with necessary infrastructures like roads and electricity.
This idea can be extended to all social media. Rather than breaking up the tech giants or regulating them to death, they are instead given the option of being treated as either a publication or as a public utility.
If a company opts for being a publication, it has full editorial freedom – but then must face full legal responsibility for anything written by its users. For Facebook, with its more than one billion users, this would be a nightmare and instant death due to lawsuits. If, however, a company opts for being a public utility, it must allow people to say things that are legal under the First Amendment. In exchange, it has no editorial responsibility.
Such a bill would not only protect people from being “unpersoned” by big tech, but would also protect the corporations from persecution by non-American governments. It allows them to hide behind the law and say that they cannot legally stop speech that is within the purview of the First Amendment.
However, it is quite likely that corporations would fight such legislation, arguing that it interferes with their right to trade. In order to be fully constitutional and unequivocally legal, the internet bill of rights would almost certainly have to come as a constitutional amendment.
If the government has a role to play in handling social media, it isn’t in the way that Facebook wants. As far as liberty is concerned, the less regulation the better – and an internet bill of rights might just fit the bill.
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