Free speech and social media moderation

“Big internet platforms for speech are privately owned, but those who would pressure private firms to restrict speech are often the same people who would substantially restrict the rights of people to speak. John Samples and Emily Ekins discuss how Americans think about free speech today and ways to defend it in the modern age.” [Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown]

More: John Samples on Facebook moderation policies; Matthew Feeney, “Keep Government Away From Twitter.” And if Congress abrogates the liability protections of Section 230, as some conservatives urge, one predictable consequence will be that more conservatives will wind up getting purged from social media [Elizabeth Nolan Brown]


  • I’ve repeatedly expressed my concern that social media giants (Facebook, Google, etc.) could exert influence over the masses by restricting the use of their platforms under the guise of preventing hateful or provocative speech. The problem with such restrictions is that it requires someone – with their own opinion – to determine what speech is “hateful or provocative”. It is even more troublesome when the restrictions are made at the urging of legislators to avoid government regulation.

    To be fair, it is generally within the rights of such companies to limit speech; the 1st amendment does not restrict private companies, nor does it require that your opponent give you a platform from which to speak. However, when such platforms become the de facto means of speech we should carefully consider the impact of restrictions on their use.

  • the internet still is a government extension. See arpanet, current rules, current ownership of fiber, etc… The government, particularly DISA still has a very large hand in the internet and it’s aspects.
    But of course, i’m just some tinfoil wearing crank…

    • Copper foil is a better conductor…

  • I’m going to have to disagree with the esteemed scholars at Cato on this issue. I believe there is good cause to require social media sites to provide equal-access to all. However, I am not a lawyer so feel free to flame me.

    Social media companies are not publishers; they simply provide a platform for others to publish. They do not approve individual content before publishing, and no one would mistake a user’s posts as those by or opinions of the social media company. As such, they are much more akin to a printer than a publisher. Yes, social media sites have excluded or removed some posts after-the-fact, but that supports my assertion that they are not true publishers.

    Publishers review and approve for publishing material on a case-by-case basis. What is published, unless strictly informational or otherwise indicated, reflects on the brand of the publisher. This is a critical difference between a printer and a publisher: no one mistakes what is printed by a printer as the opinion of the printer; it is only ever considered the opinion of the customer soliciting the printing. It’s a subtle difference, but one that is important: it establishes the social media site as a service provider, rather than as a publisher with a brand to protect.

    Now think of how the denial of basic services could be abused to create serious civil rights issues. For instance, what if a printer is refusing to print flyers for a get-out-the-vote campaign meant to increase African-American voter registration? Or a cake vendor refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding? Or – even worse – pressure being exerted on the local printer or baker from others, under threat of boycott or ostracization of the owner or their business? The only way to protect against these actions is to make them impossible. If you are a business offering a service, you must make that service available to all.

    There is, however, another reason for social media providers to be required to give equal access: they have become the de-facto means of speech. Posting on social media is the modern-day equivalent of speaking in public; only now, “public” is not limited in spacial terms. In addition, due to the communal nature of social media sites, there is a large barrier to entry when starting a competing service. This prevents equal, alternative access possibilities.

    For these reasons I believe that social media providers should not be allowed to discriminate based on content. I don’t believe they should be highly regulated, just held to an equal access civil rights standard.

    • Posting on social media is the modern-day equivalent of speaking in public

      It’s more like the equivalent of speaking in a tavern, and the tavern owner is allowed to throw you out if you start offending everyone else in the place.

      • But in this case, the “taverns” are near-monopolistic giants worth billions of dollars, and reaching billions of people.

      • I’d have to respectfully disagree with your comparison of social media companies to bars. The function of a bar is not to disseminate speech (at least, that’s not why I went to bars in my youth…); However, that *is* the purpose of social media platforms.

        I will restate my original positions so as to clarify:

        1) Social media companies are simply service providers, no different than any street-corner printing establishment, and as such should not be allowed to pick and choose printing customers based on content or viewpoint.

        I know I’m going to get push-back from those advocating from a freedom-of-association position, but please consider my argument. Would not the ability to pick and choose your customers based on viewpoint open the doors to wholesale racism/sexism/classism/etc?

        2) When a speech method becomes the de-facto means of speech, with no equivalent alternative to reach the masses, a restriction on its use becomes an effective restriction on free speech. This encompasses more than just social media companies; the entire Internet falls within this potential zone of restricted speech

        How would you feel if all phone companies refused to give you a phone because they didn’t like what you might say? Or if they left you off of all the phone directories so that no one could find you? What if this was a coordinated effort among service providers specifically to silence some opinions? Would that be a restriction on speech?

        I’m not really sure what the answer is to Internet/social media “restrictions”; I just want us to consider the impact of these restrictions and how they might effectively limit speech.

  • Call it a chain of taverns, and they don’t want full participation of those [insert class here, protected or otherwise] in the place. And the call is being made by corporate at the hq in Ca regardless of where your particular one is located.
    C’mon, someone argue with me that Youtube/Twitter/Facebook is being run on a single server in Ca… Dare ya! These are the days of distributed environments. 😀