FREE SPEECH IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL MEDIA

The current situation involving the suppression of information by Twitter and Facebook has generated quite a stir on the Interwebs. There have been a lot of charges thrown about, and a lot of new terms came up, so I did what I like to do, which is to dive, headfirst, down the rabbit hole. I was seeking answers to questions like: What’s the difference between a platform, a publisher and a distributor? What is Section 230? What is free speech? What can we, as American citizens, do? Here are the answers I came up with.

The central conversation is about whether Twitter and Facebook are publishers, platforms or distributors. The differences are in what protections they are offered from liability. A publisher is basically liable for material they republish the same way they are liable for their own speech. Publishers have to be careful in choosing what to publish.

Distributors are akin to bookstores. The owner of a bookstore isn’t expected to vet every book on his shelves. But once he learns that a specific book included some specific, criminal material, he could be liable if he didn’t remove the book from the shelves.

Platforms aren’t liable at all. A phone company is an example of a platform. If a person’s voicemail greeting contained a libelous message, and the phone company did nothing to cancel the owner’s phone service, it couldn’t be sued for libel. Likewise, a city couldn’t be liable for defamatory material on signs that someone carried on city sidewalks.

47 U.S.C. § 230, or Section 230, was the only part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to survive Supreme Court review. Simply put, Section 230 immunizes all Internet service and content providers platforms from liability for their users’ speech — whether or not they blocked or removed certain kinds of speech. My take on this is that, in its current form, Section 230 does not make the distinction between platform and publisher.

So why does any of this matter? The answer lies in what one believes about free speech.

Free speech is a natural right, inherent to human beings. While no right is absolute, free speech is at the core of the American psyche. Thus the outrage at Twitter, Facebook and the other tech giants.

Americans may put up with a lot, but not other people telling them what to think or not to think, nor will they put up with not being able to have their say on what is going on around them.

As a natural right, free speech existed before government. The First Amendment specifically tells the government they should not interfere with it. How then are we to tolerate a business, or an industry, that goes against the quintessential American right?

It is tempting to say, “Congress has to do something!” I would agree. Update the language of Section 230 to have it more clearly address the issues we deal with today. Other than that, the American response should be this: free enterprise.

If I go into a store, and an employee begins telling me that I have to behave in certain ways, I’m out. I’m going to find a store that treats me like a valued customer. The marketplace is full of alternatives. Use them.

Twitter has become a cesspool of thought and you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Why would you allow someone else to dictate what you read, think or say? Try an alternative like Parler.

Not happy with Facebook’s privacy practices? Tired of talking about something, then seeing ads on your Facebook feed for that? Try MeWe.

Tired of Google trying to refine searches for you? Try Bing, or any other search engine. Letting our feet do our talking has shaped businesses in the U. S. since its founding.

Now is not the time for passivity. Now is the time for each American to exercise their rights. We do not need government’s help, or permission, to do so. What we need is the will. While we all have inherent, natural rights, what good are they if we don’t demand their protection? If you’re not sure how we expect government to act, re-read the Declaration of Independence.

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