Softly Regulating Social Media Platforms

One of the difficult issues of our day is determining the appropriate regulatory response to social media platforms—such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—that have a dominant market position. Is it consistent with classical liberal principles to regulate those platforms? Even if it would be consistent with classical liberalism, would it be a good idea?

Another question is what type of regulation would make sense. Perhaps certain less intrusive forms of regulation would be desirable, whereas more restrictive forms would be problematic.

In this post, I discuss some possible types of regulation that might be categorized as soft regulation—as regulation that promotes certain goals by attempting to minimize (but not eliminate) coercion. I am not necessarily recommending these proposals, just putting them on the table.

Here are some proposals, ranging from least coercive to more coercive.

1. Simple Transparency. Each social media platform is required to announce terms of service rules, including rules for whether or not it will discriminate on the basis of political ideology. The platform is not prohibited from discriminating, but if it does discriminate, it must say so and how it will do so.

If the platform does not discriminate, it must also announce how this prohibition will be enforced, including who will be making these judgments, whether these enforcers will indicate the specific actions or writings that violated the terms of service (and how they did so), and whether there are any appeal options.

2. Requirements to Claim Nondiscrimination. Under this proposal, a social media platform that announces it does not discriminate on the basis of political ideology must actually adopt some policies. It must employ reliable mechanisms for identifying violations of terms of service in a politically neutral manner. For example, solely using the Southern Poverty Legal Center, a left-wing group, to identify inappropriate content would not be a reliable mechanism. It must also provide a reliable appeals mechanism to ensure that political bias is not being employed. To be clear, under this proposal a platform is not prohibited from discriminating based on political ideology. But if it discriminates, it must plainly say it is doing so.

3. Requirements of All Social Media Platforms that Enjoy Communications Decency Act Immunity. Under this proposal, all social media platforms would be required to institute a policy of nondiscrimination—and to follow the requirements under number 2 above—in order to enjoy Communications Decency Act immunity. Under section 230 of the Act, social media platforms are not responsible for the actions of defamation committed by users of the platform, since the platforms are not considered to be publishers of the users’ statements. But one might restrict this “privilege” if social media platforms are actually intervening so as to discriminate on the basis of political statements.

These various proposals attempt to minimize the level of coercion to a certain degree. The first proposal merely requires disclosure as to policies for political discrimination. The second requires certain institutions to be used by those platforms that claim not to discriminate. And the third actually requires nondiscrimination for platforms that receive the “privilege” of immunity.

I am not sure whether any of these proposals are desirable overall. But, unless the social media platforms were willing to state that they discriminated based on politics, they would represent a significant change in the way the platforms behave. And under the third proposal, these reforms would be essentially mandatory (and therefore not all that soft) because of the great value of the privilege of immunity.

Reader Discussion

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on October 30, 2018 at 08:05:04 am

Social media might seem to be a benign development, or at worst a neutral one. Much like the babble fish.

"The Babel fish," said The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

* * *

[T]he ... Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guild to the Galaxy (1979)

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on October 30, 2018 at 10:01:00 am

All well and good, BUT:

Why do people continue to use these "platforms" when it is apparent that their viewpoint(s) are not welcome.

Use the tactics of the Left against them. Boycott FaceCrap, etc.
Is what you say REALLY that important as to compel you to endure discrimination by the intellectual (term used advisedly) dictatorship of the Left?
Does anyone REALLY need to hear what you have to say?
Is it not simply another screeching sound lost in the cacaphounous chaos of constant / instant communications?
As the real "REALLY" asserts above are we not simply feeding the irrational whirlwind in which the Babel fish swims?

Boycott, Divest and (passively) Sanction our communications overlords by IGNORING THEM.
Then observe what happens to their advertising revenues and, not incidentally, your own sanity and privacy.

BTW: Recent news informs us that FaceCrap has once again abused its market position and is now "tracking' anyone who is listed on its users "contact list."

Since I have no contacts, I think I may be safe! How about you?

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Image of gabe
on October 30, 2018 at 12:41:53 pm

And let us not forget that in the Babel fish world, it is the millions of other *little* fish that may also do damage as evidenced in this piece by Victor Davis Hanson concerning the "electronic" beheading of one Megyn Kelly:


Of course, the poor dear lass will receive another $69 million - not so for the rest of the hoi polloi frequenting those domains.

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