‘Nationalize’ Facebook and Twitter as public goods
The ejection of President Trump by Facebook and Twitter shines a bright spotlight on the troubling issues around social media platforms. It raises a fundamental question about the power they wield in society and, in particular, their impact on the future of public discourse and democracy. If they can cut the most powerful person on the planet at the knees without warning, they can do it to anyone anytime. In effect, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey just fired a shot across the bow of lawmakers: While they make the rules, Zuckerberg and Dorsey just showed them who wields the ultimate power.
Clearly, social media platforms have outgrown their initial mission due to their sheer size and the fact that they now constitute the “public square.” Indeed, as Barack Obama noted in 2017, social media platforms needed “to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise.”
That conversation never got started until it was too late, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal made it abundantly clear that they are purely a commercial enterprise even as they provide a public service — but entirely on their terms. They operate in a twilight zone, protected by Section 230 against any liability. They exercise complete control over how to maximize revenues from their network even if it creates serious negative “externalities” such as polarization, inciting normal people into doing things such as riot that they might not otherwise do.
Their move banning Trump puts lawmakers in an awkward position. If they ignore it, they are acknowledging that CEOs of social media platforms are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes free speech. This would be a dangerous precedent. I can’t see the U.S. government ceding that role to CEOs who have barely reached adulthood with no record of public service.
A journalist asked me recently whether Democratic control would have any impact on the recent Big Tech hearings. I predicted increased transparency and accountability regardless of who was in control. But given the recent action to ban Trump from social media, lawmakers face an even more fundamental and vexing question: Given that social media platforms have become the de facto public square, should we treat them as public goods?
The answer is that there is no alternative. In effect, it involves the application of the First Amendment to platforms that are regarded as public goods. In which case, the public should decide on the rules of discourse, which can only be through government. Denying someone access to such platforms arbitrarily would be akin to cutting off their access to public transportation. That’s not a decision that a CEO of a private company should be making.
For several years, I have suggested regulatory guidelines aimed at increasing the transparency of social media platforms through rules requiring that they know their customers and users, and keeping audit trails of all their actions. But their recent actions make it clear that this transparency should include rules of participation – agreed upon by the public and implemented through law – that are followed by social media platforms. In effect, this requires partly “nationalizing” social media platforms over a certain size as public goods that provide a “utility” for communication and public discourse.
The alternative is to do nothing. Which reminds me of the Martin Niemoller quote “First they came for the socialists and I said nothing.” Replace “socialist” with “Trump.” The larger point is that the social media platforms have thrown down the gauntlet, wrapped in velvet for lawmakers and, specifically, the new administration.
Germany and France objected to Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions, stating that “lawmakers should set the rules governing free speech, not private technology companies.”
U.S. lawmakers have little choice but to cut Big Tech down to size before it is too late.
Vasant Dhar is a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the director of the PhD program at the Center for Data Science.
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