Conservatives are being censored
Claiming that “right-wing voices are being censored,” Republican-led legislatures in Florida and Texas have introduced legislation to “end Big Tech censorship.” They say that the dominant tech platforms block legitimate speech without ever articulating their moderation policies, that they are slow to admit their mistakes, and that there is no meaningful due process for people who think the platforms got it wrong.
So is everyone else
But it’s not just conservatives who have their political speech blocked by social media giants. It’s Palestinians and other critics of Israel, including many Israelis. And it’s queer people, of course. We have a whole project tracking people who’ve been censored, blocked, downranked, suspended and terminated for their legitimate speech, from punk musicians to peanuts fans, historians to war crimes investigators, sex educators to Christian ministries.
Content moderation is hard at any scale, but even so, the catalog of big platforms’ unforced errors makes for sorry reading. Experts who care about political diversity, harassment and inclusion came together in 2018 to draft the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation but the biggest platforms are still just winging it for the most part.
The situation is especially grim when it comes to political speech, particularly when platforms are told they have a duty to remove “extremism.”
The Florida and Texas social media laws are deeply misguided and nakedly unconstitutional, but we get why people are fed up with Big Tech’s ongoing goat-rodeo of content moderation gaffes.
So what can we do about it?
Let’s start with talking about why platform censorship matters. In theory, if you don’t like the moderation policies at Facebook, you can quit and go to a rival, or start your own. In practice, it’s not that simple.
First of all, the internet’s “marketplace of ideas” is severely lopsided at the platform level, consisting of a single gargantuan service (Facebook), a handful of massive services (YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, etc) and a constellation of plucky, struggling, endangered indieweb alternatives.
If none of the big platforms want you, you can try to strike out on your own. Setting up your own rival platform requires that you get cloud services, anti-DDoS, domain registration and DNS, payment processing and other essential infrastructure. Unfortunately, every one of these sectors has grown increasingly concentrated, and with just a handful of companies dominating every layer of the stack, there are plenty of weak links in the chain and if just one breaks, your service is at risk.
But even if you can set up your own service, you’ve still got a problem: everyone you want to talk about your disfavored ideas with is stuck in one of the Big Tech silos. Economists call this the “network effect,” when a service gets more valuable as more users join it. You join Facebook because your friends are there, and once you’re there, more of your friends join so they can talk to you.
Setting up your own service might get you a more nuanced and welcoming moderation environment, but it’s not going to do you much good if your people aren’t willing to give up access to all their friends, customers and communities by quitting Facebook and joining your nascent alternative, not least because there’s a limit to how many services you can be active on.
If all you think about is network effects, then you might be tempted to think that we’ve arrived at the end of history, and that the internet was doomed to be a winner-take-all world of five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four.
But not just network effects
But network effects aren’t the only idea from economics we need to pay attention to when it comes to the internet and free speech. Just as important is the idea of “switching costs,” the things you have to give up when you switch away from one of the big services – if you resign from Facebook, you lose access to everyone who isn’t willing to follow you to a better place.
Switching costs aren’t an inevitable feature of large communications systems. You can switch email providers and still connect with your friends; you can change cellular carriers without even having to tell your friends because you get to keep your phone number.
The high switching costs of Big Tech are there by design. Social media may make signing up as easy as a greased slide, but leaving is another story. It’s like a roach motel: users check in but they’re not supposed to check out.
Interop vs. switching costs
Enter interoperability, the practice of designing new technologies that connect to existing ones. Interoperability is why you can access any website with any browser, and read Microsoft Office files using free/open software like LibreOffice, cloud software like Google Office, or desktop software like Apple iWorks.
An interoperable social media giant – one that allowed new services to connect to it – would bust open that roach motel. If you could leave Facebook but continue to connect with the friends, communities and customers who stayed behind, the decision to leave would be much simpler. If you don’t like Facebook’s rules (and who does?) you could go somewhere else and still reach the people that matter to you, without having to convince them that it’s time to make a move.
The ACCESS Act
That’s where laws like the proposed ACCESS Act come in. While not perfect, this proposal to force the Big Tech platforms to open up their walled gardens to privacy-respecting, consent-seeking third parties is a way forward for anyone who chafes against Big Tech’s moderation policies and their uneven, high-handed application.
Some tech platforms are already moving in that direction. Twitter says it wants to create an “app store for moderation,” with multiple services connecting to it, each offering different moderation options. We wish it well! Twitter is well-positioned to do this – it’s one tenth the size of Facebook and needs to find ways to grow.
But the biggest tech companies show no sign of voluntarily reducing their switching costs. The ACCESS Act is the most important interoperability proposal in the world, and it could be a game-changer for all internet users.
Save Section 230, save the internet
Unfortunately for all of us, many of the people who don’t like Big Tech’s moderation think the way to fix it is to eliminate Section 230, a law that promotes users’ free speech. Section 230 is a rule that says you sue the person who caused the harm while organizations that host expressive speech are free to remove offensive, harassing or otherwise objectionable content.
That means that conservative Twitter alternatives can delete floods of pornographic memes without being sued by their users. It means that online forums can allow survivors of workplace harassment to name their abusers without worrying about libel suits.
If hosting speech makes you liable for what your users say, then only the very biggest platforms can afford to operate, and then only by resorting to shoot-first/ask-questions-later automated takedown systems.
There’s not much that the political left and right agree on these days, but there’s one subject that reliably crosses the political divide: frustration with monopolists’ clumsy handling of online speech.
For the first time, there’s a law before Congress that could make Big Tech more accountable and give internet users more control over speech and moderation policies. The promise of the ACCESS Act is an internet where if you don’t like a big platform’s moderation policies, if you think they’re too tolerant of abusers or too quick to kick someone off for getting too passionate during a debate, you can leave, and still stay connected to the people who matter to you.
Killing CDA 230 won’t fix Big Tech (if that was the case, Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be calling for CDA 230 reform). The ACCESS Act won’t either, by itself — but by making Big Tech open up to new services that are accountable to their users, the ACCESS Act takes several steps in the right direction.