Tuesday October 27, 2020
Censorship by private companies is a topic that divides free-marketers but has suddenly become important in the wake of Twitter and Facebook’s recent attempts to squash a New York Post story alleging corruption in the Biden family. Last year, economist James Miller argued that, just as the power company can’t turn off your electricity for being a Trump supporter, social media companies shouldn’t be able to silence you for your political opinions. Others have argued that companies can silence whomever they like because it’s their company. This is a red herring that misses the fact that reform would actually reduce government intervention, by narrowing something called Section 230 immunity.
First, what free-marketers agree on: regulation of speech by government is both unconstitutional and a very bad idea. From 1949 to 1987, the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” rule was used to utterly silence the right – Rush Limbaugh was still a salesman for the Kansas City Royals until Reagan finally repealed the rule, and Murray Rothbard famously could fit the entire libertarian movement in a living room. The Doctrine’s repeal opened the floodgates for talk radio, then Fox News, and now content from the Mises Institute to Prager University to the Babylon Bee. Given that the vast majority of Federal workers remain partisan Democrats -- the “Deep State,” if you will, hasn’t changed its colors – reimposing regulation of speech likely means a return to socialist domination of speech.
However, actual solutions being proposed involve, not more regulation, but less. In particular, narrowing an immunity that was granted to online platforms in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This was a special immunity from liability for user-posted content, so long as the company was acting as a platform open to all comers – think “common carrier” rules like the phone company.