In March, Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, appeared before Congress and gave a statement about misinformation on his platform and the role it plays in our political system.
During the course of his testimony to the Consumer Protection & Commerce and Communications & Technology subcommittees, Zuckerberg advocated for reform of Section 230, a legal provision that currently prevents companies like Facebook from being held liable for things people say on their platform.
“We believe Congress should consider making platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practices to combat the spread of this content,” Zuckerberg said. “Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.”
Essentially what Facebook wants is for Section 230 to be modified so that companies are held liable for illegal content on their platforms unless they can demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying it. And that’s not all. Since that point in time, Facebook has rolled out a full-blown advocacy campaign lobbying for its own regulation, even running ads on influential platforms like the New York Times.
Zuckerberg is far from alone in his designs for Section 230. Lawmakers in both of the two major parties have been gunning for reform or even outright repeal for some time.
A new bill from Amy Klobuchar would hold Facebook and other tech companies responsible for Covid-19 vaccine misinformation https://t.co/BSukwUS8K5— Vox (@voxdotcom) July 22, 2021
A Brief Refresher
For those who may not be familiar, Section 230 is a previously obscure piece of legislation that was written in the 1990s at the dawn of the internet to ensure free speech protections extended to this new frontier. It’s a very basic law that says websites cannot be held liable for what others post on them, and that business owners get the final say on what speech they promote or kick off their premises—the same as any brick-and-mortar would.
For the past two years, Section 230 has been enjoying a “main character moment” thanks to former President Trump’s particular issue with it. Trump became upset by Twitter’s moderation of his content and began targeting the law towards the end of his presidency.
Since that time, both Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills that would amend Section 230. Some propose that the companies should be held liable for speech if they choose to moderate content in a way that displeases Republicans. Others in the Democrat party suggest they should be liable if they allow content they deem as “misinformation” to stay up. Both sides are essentially seeking to strip social media platforms of their First Amendment rights to moderate content on their platforms as they see fit.
Lawmakers in both camps are motivated by a desire to have more control over the content on these channels—Democrats because they want to force companies to censor more, and Republicans because they want to force companies to censor less.
Why Would Facebook Push for Regulations on Itself?
It is unlikely such laws would have much of an impact on Facebook, which already spends an exorbitant amount of money on its vast content moderation systems. Facebook already employs fact-checkers and systems that check for bullying, harassment, and violent threats.
So why would Facebook lobby for its own regulation, especially for regulations that enforce what they’re mostly already doing? Easy. Zuckerberg and the rest of his team know that competitors and start-ups would have a much harder time positioning themselves for success under the new regulatory framework. Such systems would be expensive to develop and maintain, after all.
Fortunately, at least one lawmaker is on to Zuckerberg’s grift. Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR), who is the original author of Section 230, wrote, "Mark Zuckerberg knows that rolling back Section 230 will cement Facebook's position as the dominant social media company and make it vastly harder for new startups to challenge his cash cow.”
Zuckerberg is as disingenuous in his stated aims as are the lawmakers. None of them actually care about free speech, truthful information, or bias. This is about money and control, as it almost always is when it comes to the government.
And, if these groups got their way, consumers would ultimately pay the price. Such a change would lead to fewer online options at best under Zuckerberg’s proposal. And under the more radical proposals to repeal Section 230, they would likely lead to a world where either absolutely everything was moderated, or where consumers were unable to weigh in with their opinion at all.
Who Do Regulations Really Protect?
In 1971, economist George Stigler published a paper called, “The Theory of Economic Regulation.” In it, he offered a stinging rebuke of government regulations and the popular notion that they were implemented for the sake of consumers or to correct market “failures.” Rather, he said that regulations were designed primarily for the interest of businesses.
It is actually not at all uncommon to see big corporations lobbying for regulations on their own industries. Why would this be if regulations were actually meant to restrain them? It wouldn’t. Rather, regulations are put in place to skew the market in their favor—allowing the government to pick winners and losers—and to hurt their competition. This is why it is imperative that people learn the difference between true free market policies and “pro-business” policies, which are commonly anything but free market.
The free market and individual liberty work really well, when we let them. Under the current laws we have seen much innovation, growth, and yes, competition. And though a small number of companies seem to be currently dominating the market, it’s important to remember how quickly things can (and do) change. MySpace was once the dominant platform, and now comprises a much smaller share of the market. And dozens of other social media companies such as Rumble, Parler, and Tik Tok are currently working to build from the ground up to compete.
While we may not like all of the practices of the current companies at the top, being principled means standing by our values even when things do not go our way. Ultimately, the problems presented by freedom are far less worrisome than those presented by regulation and big government interfering with the market.
Those who are currently falling for the talking points behind Section 230 attacks are being hoodwinked into supporting a regulatory framework that will only hinder the competition and make Facebook stronger.