Slashing big tech's Gordian Knot
"Don't believe everything you read on the internet," we used to be told in elementary school when we took our turn in front of Netscape Navigator to travel Mr. Gore's Information Superhighway. A useful corollary would have been "Don't believe everything you read about the internet."
There is probably no subject in recent American history about which more nonsense has been talked. From its inception to the present, we have told ourselves that a communications technology that has destroyed the attention spans of billions, a surveillance tool that even the imaginary totalitarian dictators of Orwell and Huxley could never have dreamed of, a vast repository of pornography and terrorist correspondence, ennobled the human race. We have perpetuated myths of the hucksters and tinpot messiahs who made billions from it as Promethean fire-bringers rather than sordid tycoons. And, most foolishly of all, we have insisted that there is almost nothing that can be done to regulate it.
Like most of the lies we accept, the ones about the internet are told on all sides. Had it not been for decades of knee-jerk right-wing opposition to antitrust law, the coordination between Twitter, various subsidiaries of Facebook and Alphabet, and other online platforms that has become the object of so much performative outrage would not have been possible. If progressives really believed in the basic tenets of 20th century antitrust law, and rejected the premise that only states can exercise quasi-coercive authority over individuals and communities, they would not resort to ridiculous talking points of the "Well, a private company can decide to publish whatever it wants" variety, as if Facebook were your local newspaper rather than the reason your local newspaper no longer exists.
What would real talk about the internet and social media look like? It would begin with the tacit admission by Adam Mosseri of Instagram that there is no such thing as value neutrality. No corporation can be expected to pretend otherwise, which is why they should not be legally required to do so. It follows from here that no publisher, much less the largest de facto ones the world has ever seen, should enjoy the protections offered under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The New York Times is free to decide what appears in its pages solely at the discretion of its editor precisely because they would be jailed or otherwise held liable if they used their platform to publish child pornography or obvious inducements to violence.
Is social media really a Gordian Knot? It seems to me that the solution is perfectly straightforward: In addition to eliminating Section 230, which would force social media companies to follow the same rules as every other publisher, we should recognize that basic internet services — service, hosting, search, email — are public goods and nationalize them. Such an arrangement would not guarantee that anyone can post anything he likes on any service at any time. But it would ensure that no entity whose highest responsibility is increasing shareholder value would have the surveillance powers that belong to the state alone, if indeed they belong to anyone. It is only within such a framework that complicated questions about the role of the First Amendment in the 21st century can be adjudicated in the courts rather than in closed-door meetings between executives.
The most sweeping revolution in modern history, one that has given fruitarian failsons more power over human communication than any king or dictator, has taken place in the living memory of even reasonably young Americans. It is time we started acknowledging this and returning all the territory the internet has seized for itself to the jurisdiction of the state, where maintenance of the common good is at least possible, if not likely.