Who controls the Marketplace of Ideas and does regulating it, limit it?

Commentary, Culture Wars, Eamonn Brosnan

In Part 1, I discussed some issues around these Social Media companies and whether they are considered monopolies. Because of the nature of their actual business (digital advertising) they aren’t monopolies, they are each other’s competitors in a larger marketplace. However, the real issue that people have come to identify is not their revenue source, but rather their non-income-based activities. Whether it is Google’s willingness to tweak search results for business or other reasons, YouTube’s and Twitter’s willingness to remove certain individual’s accounts, or Facebook’s seemingly inconsistent enforcement of policies around violating community standards, often landing “offenders” either banned from Facebook or sitting in the penalty box for a 30 day period of time (Facebook jail as it is commonly called). Regardless of your political stripe, all those engaged in social and political discussions can, and frequently do, point to some individuals who were a victim of these actions and policies.

Google has been accused in the past, of using their search engine dominance to ensure people play by their rules regarding other aspects of their business. After the Wall Street Journal began restricting access to their articles behind a paywall in 2017, it was discovered that their traffic coming from Google searches had plummeted by 44% almost overnight. In addition; Google and their subsidiary YouTube, along with Facebook, and Twitter have taken to enforcing their content rules liberally and, at times, shutting down platforms that run against their internal political views. Many commentators scream free speech when this happens (in the US Freedom of Speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of their constitution and a less wide-ranging version applies to Canada through our Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The problem with this is that both of these core documents to our respective countries apply ONLY to the government passing laws that restrict this freedom. It does not prevent private corporations from cracking down on what is said within their buildings or on their websites. A company can choose to allow or ban any person so long as their decision is not based on protected statuses (such as gender, race, or sexuality among others).

Where does this leave us? The real problem, in my mind, is that through their respective dominant market shares in the free portion of their businesses, these social media enterprises (Twitter has been included as well because despite their small size they have been shown to exert an outsized influence on public thought) control our collective venues for social and political conversations, our marketplace of thoughts and ideas, if you will.

The US Congress recently held hearings regarding this influence, in an effort to get a handle on their impact with the possible intent of regulating them. The real problem is that these have become our public square of our collective village. It is almost inevitable that social media platforms, as a whole, will be regulated by someone (be it governments or other organizations). Already we see some regulations being applied, in a jigsaw pattern coming from different governments. China has a much stricter view of free speech, and as such, has given technology companies, especially social media companies, ultimatums to follow their rules. Google implements the required censorship policies, and as such has been permitted to continue operating there. Facebook was not able to meet China’s requirements, and as such has been blocked to their population since 2009. Even 2 countries who share many common values, such as Canada and the US, still have some unique differences in how laws are written and interpreted. For instance, a posted Youtube video may be considered acceptable under US laws, however, it may run afoul to Canada’s hate speech laws; this may lead to other countries adding their own different regulations as to what constitutes hate speech. This will simply create a more confusing landscape, as each company will be responsible for verifying compliance with each country’s rules and laws.

It is my estimation that a better solution would be for an independent regulatory organization be created, with input from the major social media companies currently in existence along with representatives from a small selection of countries (we don’t need 195 national representatives in a committee) to help create a structure for regulatory compliance. A list of criteria can be drawn up that each country can then check boxes on for what is or isn’t permitted in their country. The regulatory group can then provide this updated information to all social media companies, and can maintain this list as laws change in each country. It can also maintain minimum security and review requirements to help prevent (or at least make it easier to see) when organizations or companies are attempting to abuse the platforms to manipulate political events.

I think that this solution would help the social media companies implement their platforms in a variety of different cultures and countries. It removes governments from having direct regulatory control (and responsibility) for all of these platforms and gives everyone a clear foundational structure to work from. All companies will have the same rules applied to them and they will know the rules in advance.

With regard to the issues of speech being restricted on these platforms here in Canada and in our neighbour, the US, I think that we have now run into a unique situation that needs to be addressed from a different angle. Our Western democracies are born from, and survive due to, the very concept of free speech. The moment that we begin regulating and restricting this freedom is the moment that we begin to erode the very foundation of our democratic form of government.

Something that is important to consider when looking at these organizations censoring various individuals and groups is that because they are the public square where the free-flowing exchange of ideas is currently happening, when they restrict or stymie these activities, they are having a negative impact on our social development and on our very democracy. Though I might, politically, agree with them de-platforming certain individuals, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending these people’s rights to have access to a platform. If the only time that you defend free speech is when someone is limiting an idea that you agree with, then you aren’t actually interested in defending free speech but just your own personal political ideals. The argument for free speech is only real when you are defending the right to say something that you don’t agree with.

Read Part 1 – Should the Social Media Tech Companies be Considered Monopolies? here.