Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s co-founders, wrote an op-ed arguing that Facebook should break up. Among the many reasons why, he claimed that the social media site has “unilateral control over speech” not only in America, but worldwide. Additionally, he said, the company is fueling the worst impulses in its users and keeping others from entering the market, making the company seem more like a monopoly than a private company trying to provide a service.
While his criticism is valid, it is the solutions he supports that sound counter-intuitive and, if anything, naïve.
Instead of urging Mark Zuckerberg to think about what his company has become and trying to persuade the public to pressure Facebook’s CEO to relinquish some control, Hughes looks to government for “help.” To him, it is the job of U.S. regulators to break Facebook up.
Hughes then proposes the creation of a new agency (another one!?) to regulate tech companies, stating that the government should require firms to uphold specific “guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.” It’s almost as if Hughes had turned the criticism against Facebook regarding how it controls speech on its head, calling for more speech restrictions and regulations that would surrender even more control to monopolies, but who’s paying attention?
The former Facebook co-founder then explains that there isn’t a “constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence.”
Hughes, it seems, isn’t aware of countless cases of people being arrested and tried for cyberstalking and murdering people, whether they upload videos and photos of their crimes to social media. Or perhaps, he isn’t willing to concede that laws against violence and threats of violence are enough. Is he trying to force companies like Facebook to be held liable for what people say while on the platform?
While his argument might be cheered by some who believe that government should have unrestricted power over our lives, the reality is that it won’t make a dent. Especially if he isn’t calling for the end to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Section 230 protects internet service providers and other “interactive computer service” owners from liability regarding people’s posts.
It is precisely because of this rule that platforms like YouTube, craigslist, Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook flourished, allowing users to post pretty much anything they wanted until not too long ago. As EFF explained, “it would be infeasible for online intermediaries to prevent objectionable content from cropping up on their site.” If forced to do so, the organization added, these companies would “likely not host any user content at all or would need to protect themselves by being actively engaged in censoring what we say, what we see, and what we do online.” In other words, bring this rule down would only strengthen big firms like Facebook, giving them more power to restrict what we’re saying online.
If Hughes had thought his argument through, he might have noticed the contradiction. Unless his real goal was, from the get-go, to advocate for empowering, not breaking up, Facebook.