The Atlantic The Great Free-Speech Reversal – The Atlantic

Posted: January 29, 2021 at 12:15 pm

These efforts to justify Trumps deplatforming by reference to social-media companies internal speech policiesand in particular, Facebooks willingness to have that decision reviewed by an independent, quasi-judicial Oversight Boardsuggest that the project of platform self-regulation is gaining traction. The important question facing internet users in the United States and around the world is whether the platforms self-regulation will be sufficient to protect the important democratic and expressive freedoms that the American free-speech tradition cares about.

There are reasons to be skeptical that self-regulation will be enough. Perhaps the primary reason is the fact that, notwithstanding their presumably sincere commitment to freedom of speech, social-media companies are, in the end, for-profit entities that offer a forum for speech in order to make money. Will they protect expressive freedom even when it conflicts with corporate profits? Conversely, outside the extraordinary circumstances of the Capitol invasion, will they take down genuinely harmful speech that brings readers to their platforms? Past history suggests that the answer to both of these questions will be no. Certainly the oftenad hoc and inconsistent decision making that the platforms demonstrated during the 2020 election campaign is alone concerning.

Given all of this, it is worth considering a third option that has been used in the past, and could once again be used, to protect expressive freedom from private power: laws requiring that the private media companies governing the mass public sphere abide by basic nondiscrimination and, often, due-process obligations. Even when the First Amendment intruded further into the private sphere than it does today, statutory nondiscrimination and due-process requirements were lawmakers primary tools to ensure that the private companies that controlled the telegraph and telephone wires, the radio and television airwaves, and the cable networks did not use their power to discriminate in favor of certain political viewpoints, or otherwise undermine the vitality of public debate. The most famous, and controversial, example of these laws was the Fairness Doctrine, which imposed extensive, if vague, nondiscrimination duties on radio and television broadcasters, and to an extent, cable-television companies, from the 1930s until the late 80s, when Ronald Reagans FCC repealed it. But the Fairness Doctrine is only one example of a much wider array of media nondiscrimination laws, many of which continue to ensure, to this day, that, as one senator put it in 1926, the few men who control the great publicity vehicles of radio and television do not limit the range of ideas and viewpoints that the public can hear.

In this context as well, a significant shift in political attitudes has occurred. For much of the 20th century, conservatives were the ones who railed against the constraints that federal laws like the Fairness Doctrine imposed on private media companies, and liberals and progressives defended these policies against attack. Today, however, many conservatives argue for the need to impose statutory nondiscrimination duties on social-media companies, while many liberals express alarm about the constraints such bills would impose on the freedom of private companies.

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The Atlantic The Great Free-Speech Reversal - The Atlantic

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