June 14, 2024
We should welcome new thinking on how social-media companies are treated in the law.
Cardboard cut-outs of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a protest outside of the U.S. Capitol, April 10, 2018.
Cardboard cut-outs of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a protest outside of the U.S. Capitol, April 10, 2018.

Cards on the table: Although I use social-media products such as Facebook and Twitter to promote my work and blow off steam, I basically think these companies have a noxious effect on our society. In general I think social media has a similar but intensified degrading effect to traditional television, and for the same reason, the need to sell ads. Further, I suspect that Google and Facebook are close to having a level of power over communication that at least raises uncomfortable questions for a democratic and sovereign republic like the United States.

But even if you don’t agree with me on that, there is still a case for reexamining how these entities are treated in the law. I’m grateful Senator Josh Hawley has provoked this conversation, even if I’m not always convinced of his approach.

Right now the debate has been about the difference between platforms and publishers. National Review Online is a publication. Our comments section, though moderated, is a platform. A publication is legally liable if it prints libels or other forms of unprotected speech (a small category in America). A platform is not; only the individual posting to the platform is. (Feel free to libel me in the comments below.)

In the 1990s, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, in part to allow Internet services such as Promenade and Prodigy (RIP) to block pornography. The idea was that open Internet platforms where smut prevailed seemed to enjoy more protection in law than those entrepreneurial outfits that wanted to create family-friendly zones. The latter, because they edited and moderated content that users posted for obscenity, were at that time treated in the law as publishers and then were suddenly liable for whatever libels and slanders users posted on them. It was a more conservative America, and Congress thought the result of this was perverse.

[…]

Loading