Sorry, Google: On The Internet, Accountability Is Not Regulation

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Timothy Lee Senior Vice President, Center for Individual Freedom
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Recently, leading conservative groups sent a letter to Congress observing that dominant internet platforms like Google and Facebook have facilitated an avalanche of harms “including election interference, suppressing conservative voices, improper use of data, theft and more,” and that “[f]undamentally, many of the internet’s problems result from a lack of accountability.” The letter proceeds to applaud Congressional oversight and scrutiny of the role platforms play in giving life to that parade of horribles.

The letter appears to have struck a nerve, eliciting a Daily Caller op-ed declaring that, “some conservatives have forgotten their principles when it comes to social media.” (RELATED: SORRY CONSERVATIVES: You Don’t Have Free Speech On Facebook Or Twitter)

The op-ed by Carl Szabo goes on to lecture conservatives about free speech, noting that platforms possess a First Amendment right to suppress conservative voices, and to generally pick and choose what content they display and how they display it. The author concludes by warning “it is time that conservatives rethink any missteps” regarding internet policy. A followup article goes further, arguing that critics should simply “cut it out” – that the solution to abuses by these platforms is to “vote with your feet and use a different platform.”

That misstates the issue. The internet platforms in question, not conservatives, have demonstrably and repeatedly misstepped by abusing a legal framework that releases them from the normal obligations we expect in other realms of American life, and from all other types of American businesses.

Specifically, internet platforms were given special “safe harbors” in the early days of the internet from liability for content posted by users in exchange for a commitment to police themselves. But the internet platforms have clearly fallen short. Indeed, a recent report published by the Digital Citizens Alliance found that “gruesome jihadi content is still flourishing on Facebook and Google+.” And during a recent Congressional hearing, a member of Congress pulled up real-time Facebook ads for illegal opioid mills.

Only on the internet do we allow companies to enjoy those special “safe harbor” privileges without the concurrent responsibilities demanded of other publication platforms — and it’s becoming increasingly clear in some people’s minds that special arrangement was a mistake.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had about how platforms can improve their behavior while alleviating concerns about alleged censorship — something addressed well in a letter spearheaded by the Media Research Center and signed by 60 conservative organizations. But as a threshold matter, if platforms can’t demonstrate the resolve and responsibility to better limit illegal and abhorrent content flowing on their networks the same way that others across our society and business landscape must, it’s difficult to foresee them improving their behavior in a way that doesn’t invite more intrusive measures.

Clearly, conservative groups aren’t alone in calling for platforms to act more responsibly. Senators Thune, Cornyn and Sullivan, and Representatives Carter, McKinley and Kramer have called for platforms to take greater responsibility for the content on their services during recent Congressional hearings. Indeed, even platform CEOs themselves appear to be changing their tune. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted, “we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility.” Similarly, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi stated, “[w]e have to stand for the content of our platforms… We can’t just say we’re a platform and our job is done.” And Google CEO Sundar Pichai mused at a recent developers’ conference that, “[i]t’s clear technology can be a positive force, but it’s equally clear that we can’t just be wide-eyed about the innovations technology creates.”

The suggestion that critics “vote with their feet” is arguably even more dubious. First, victims of jihadis or opioid traffickers who exploit Facebook’s platform obviously can’t do that. And in the minds of some who may influence whether internet platforms’ safe harbor protections continue, even ordinary users possess limited or non-existent alternatives to what they consider irresponsible platform monopolies. What social platform, they may ask, are conservatives supposed to use instead? What, they may ask, should advertisers offended by Facebook and Google’s practices do when those platforms control over 60 percent of the digital ad market and capture 90 percent of new growth in this field each year?

Accordingly, to suggest that “conservatives have forgotten their principles” because they merely highlight how internet platforms may possess some market responsibility to reasonably mitigate harmful conduct occurring in broad daylight on their platforms rings hollow — particularly when those dominant platforms benefit from simply maintaining their privileged status quo. That’s a transparently cynical attempt to minimize legitimate conservative concerns and dismiss their voices while the platforms attempt to outlast potentially withering Congressional and regulatory scrutiny, in the hope that it simply goes away.

Tim Lee is the senior vice president of legal and public affairs at the Center for Individual Freedom.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.