Over the weekend, Rameumpton wrote a post urging for government action to break up social media “monopolies” like Facebook, Google and Twitter. He is not alone in calling for such action. Facebook is portrayed as a behemoth that has to be taken down for the good of society. But this argument is both historically and philosophically misguided. I want to respond to and elaborate on three points:
- Facebook is not a monopoly
First of all, it is worth discussing what exactly makes a monopoly a monopoly. There are (at least) two competing definitions of what kind of concentration of power justifies government intervention. One view sees big as bad and aims to break up companies that have too large of a market share. This was the dominant anti-trust paradox until the late 1970s. The other approach which has been dominant since Robert Bork published his seminal work, The Antitrust Paradox, in 1978 is that a big is only bad if it harms consumers by producing anti-competitive results.
This matters immensely when talking about companies like Facebook. Sure, Facebook has a large market share and ubiquitous presence. But unless there is meaningful evidence that it has engaged in anti-competitive behavior that is harmful to consumers, then there is no anti-trust injury and no reason for government intervention.
Previous monopolies have erected barriers that have made it difficult or nearly impossible for free and fair competition. For instance, AT&T had an actual government regulatory monopoly which made it practically impossible for competitors to erect the infrastructure needed to compete. Because it bought into a faulty theory of scarcity, the government handed AT&T exclusive power and regulated AT&T like a public entity. Government intervention was actually what caused the monopoly to exist in the first place, and so government intervention was necessary to break up the juggernaut that it had enabled.
The situation with social media could not be more different. The internet has leveled barriers of entry. Anyone with a computer and coding skill can attempt to create the next big internet phenomenon. Remember that Facebook itself was started by a bunch of college aged kids at Harvard who saw the need for a better networking platform than existed at the time. And anyone arguing that Facebook is immune to free and fair competition will have to recon with the fall of former giants such as MySpace.
- Private Social Media Companies do not violate the First Amendment
Rameupton claims that social media platforms need to be broken up because they are engaged in censorship and are violating free speech principles. But this argument seriously conflates the actions of private companies such as Facebook with government censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech. The First Amendment prohibits only government censorship or speech restrictions. When a private company chooses to restrict speech on its platform, it is not violating the first amendment. To the contrary, the First Amendment protects the right of Facebook to restrict access to the platform that it has created (which is its own private property) for practically any reason. Simply put, Facebook is not required to allow neo-Nazi propaganda, or white supremacist speech, or any other speech that it does not like.
Are there reasons to be concerned when social media sites target conservative voices more aggressively for censorship? Sure. Social media platforms exercise an outsized impact on our culture. And we should criticize them when claim to be unbiased and open but hypocritically go after certain viewpoints.
If we do not like what Facebook does, we have options. We can protest or boycott. We can loudly make the moral case that we should create platforms where sharp differences can be expressed. And if we are really outraged, we can leave and start our own platforms. Indeed, that is what gun enthusiasts did when YouTube began to demonetize gun videos—they created a separate site called Full30.com to promote those videos.
What we cannot do is recruit the government to compel private companies like Facebook to give us a space to express ourselves. That is not within the government’s power to do.
Now, there is a separate but closely related issue concerning whether social media platforms should be held liable for things that users post on their platform. For instance, if I go on Facebook and defame someone, should Facebook be responsible? This is a complex issue that exceeds the scope of this post. But the remarkable success of social media has come precisely because platforms have not been held liable for what users say or do on the platform. And in my opinion it would be an enormous mistake to break down the foundation that has produced immense prosperity and changed the world.
- Regulations are likely to create rather than eliminate monopolies
Rameupton is right about at least one thing, however. We should be suspicious when we see Mark Zuckerberg and others calling on Congress to regulate his company and calling for government led censorship. Could it be that such government action would help to cement Facebook’s position by making it harder for competitors to challenge Facebook? The truth is that when the government steps in, it almost always creates unintentional consequences that harm consumers. We should not rely on the government to fix all of our social media problems.