Antitrust, Free Speech, and Google

Originally published in Wall Street Journal

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promised to use antitrust law against oligopolies it said were “destroying an American democracy that depends on a free flow of information and freedom of thought.” The Justice Department’s investigation of Google may appear to fulfill this pledge. But Makan Delrahim, who heads the antitrust division, has voiced skepticism. In a 2018 address, he rejected the notion that “antitrust enforcers should step beyond consumer welfare and think about . . . values like the free speech the First Amendment protects.” He worried it would lead to subjective enforcement because “Republican and Democrat prosecutors, or those of any party or political orientation, carry with them their own perceptions of what is good and bad for our democracy.”

Yet platform neutrality isn’t a strictly partisan issue. When Facebook temporarily blocked Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ad in March, she tweeted: “I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor. #BreakUpBigTech.” Her Republican colleague Ted Cruz agreed: “She’s right—Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech.”

Continue reading “Antitrust, Free Speech, and Google”

Google and Facebook Worsen Media Bias

After the news industry laid off some 2,100 workers from Vice, Gannett, McClatchy, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed “tech monopolies” that have no “incentive to disseminate high-quality, true information.” President Trump blames the press itself: “Fake News and bad journalism have caused a big downturn.”
While these diagnoses of journalism’s ills appear contradictory, both stem from the same root. Allowing a few platforms to control financing and distribution exacerbates the groupthink Mr. Trump rails against. Continue reading “Google and Facebook Worsen Media Bias”

Internet Platforms Censor Campaign Ads

Originally Published in the Wall Street Journal

“One of the restraints on the vitriol and the filth that so often is part of the American political debate,” noted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in 2012, “is that candidates have to stand by their ads.” For many online platforms, however, fixing your name to your claim is no longer good enough for an ad to pass muster. Web publishers increasingly are censoring campaign advertisements for being “shocking” or “disrespectful.” Continue reading “Internet Platforms Censor Campaign Ads”

Google’s and Facebook’s Dubious Bitcoin Bans

Originally Published in the Wall Street Journal 

If Calvin Coolidge’s observation that “advertising is the life of trade” remains true, the new bans by Google and Facebook on cryptocurrency ads threaten the fledgling industry’s existence. Coolidge in a 1926 address hailed advertising for spurring competition, but today these two companies control a large chunk of the digital-advertising market. A company or industry that has been shut out by Google and Facebook will find it nearly impossible to reach an internet audience.

Continue reading “Google’s and Facebook’s Dubious Bitcoin Bans”

Publisher or Platform: Cruz Right on Section 230

Originally Published in City Journal (coauthored with Adam Candeub)

When the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on social media censorship late last month, liberal Democratic congressman Ted Lieu transformed into a hardcore libertarian. “This is a stupid and ridiculous hearing,” he said, because “the First Amendment applies to the government, not private companies.” He added that just as the government cannot tell Fox News what content to air, “we can’t tell Facebook what content to filter,” because that would be unconstitutional.

Lieu is incorrect. While the First Amendment generally does not apply to private companies, the Supreme Court has held it “does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that private interests not restrict . . . the free flow of information and ideas.” Continue reading “Publisher or Platform: Cruz Right on Section 230”

How to Keep Online Speech Free

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal,

Mark Zuckerberg testified recently that he expects Facebook will soon employ artificial intelligence to identify and delete “hate speech.” Yet he struggled to define the term. He acknowledged last year that standards for acceptable speech are subjective: “Our community spans many countries and cultures, and the norms are different in each region,” making universal standards “less feasible.” The CEO concluded his company needs “to evolve toward a system of more local governance.”

Silicon Valley’s recent acquiescence to political censorship contrasts with the early days of social media, when the platforms were expected to herald global freedom.

Continue reading “How to Keep Online Speech Free”

Could America’s Big Tech Industry Create Free Speech Problems?

Originally published in the National Interest

Last week, the Senate passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The legislation amends Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which holds that online platforms cannot be responsible for their users’ content, to exclude sex trafficking. Big tech companies warned that the bill could inadvertently compel them to block controversial political speech. Though they lost the fight over this exception, the tech lobby hopes to expand their immunity across North America via NAFTA renegotiations, also invoking free expression.

Despite this rhetoric, Google and other social media giants cite Section 230 to defend their own censorship policies in court. Congress enacted the law in 1996 to nullify a court decision, which made online message board owners liable for their users’ posts under some circumstances. In response, the Communications Decency Act established that “interactive computer services” (ICSs), where users post content on another platform, cannot be “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided.” Continue reading “Could America’s Big Tech Industry Create Free Speech Problems?”

The Google-Facebook Duopoly Threatens Diversity of Thought

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

‘A monopoly on the means of communication,” Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson wrote in “Leviathan,” their 1975 novel, “may define a ruling elite more precisely than the celebrated Marxian formula of ‘monopoly in the means of production.’ ” Bear that in mind when you hear this next statistic: In 2017 Google and Facebook have accounted for 84% of all digital advertising outside China, including 96% of its growth, according to an industry forecast this month from Zenith, Magna and GroupM. Continue reading “The Google-Facebook Duopoly Threatens Diversity of Thought”

Net Neutrality For The Broadband Goose And The Silicon Valley Gander

Originally published in Forbes (coauthored with Adam Candeub)

Opponents of the FCC’s vote to scale back net neutrality rules argue that it enables “powerful companies . . . decide how or when we use the internet,” as Senator Elizabeth Warren put it. However, powerful companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon all opposed the FCC’s scale back.  Continue reading “Net Neutrality For The Broadband Goose And The Silicon Valley Gander”

Big Tech Is the Real Threat

Originally published in US News & World Report (coauthored with Adam Candeub)

The Justice Department’s lawsuit against AT&T and Time Warner appears to fulfill President Donald Trump’s year old promise to block the merger. In October 2016, his campaign vowed to “break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies that have gained enormous control over our information” and that the “oligopolistic realignment of the American media along ideological and corporate lines is destroying an American democracy that depends on a free flow of information and freedom of thought.” Continue reading “Big Tech Is the Real Threat”