Antitrust Legislation Won’t Solve Big Tech Censorship

Big Tech censorship is back in the news over the demands that Spotify fire Joe Rogan for hosting guests who criticize establishment talking points. Everyone from the Biden Administration to Neil Young wants Rogan silenced. If Spotify refuses to get rid of Rogan, the pro-censorship crowd has other ideas about how to get rid of him. 

The New York Times’ staff editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell cited the ACLU to argue that the solution to Joe Rogan’s “misinformation” is to use antitrust to prevent a “handful of companies [achieving] the market dominance they have over such important public spaces.”

Unfortunately, many conservatives are now under the mistaken belief that antitrust can be deployed as a solution to Big Tech censorship.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the support of five Republicans including Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah), advanced the American Choice and Innovation Online Act (ACIOA). The law would require tech companies to allow competitors to have equal access to their platforms. The law is cosponsored by pro-censorship Democrats and is meant to protect online businesses, not individual users. But the bill’s Republican supporters somehow still view it as an answer to tech censorship.  

Senator Cruz argues the ACIOA would “provide protections to content providers, to businesses that are discriminated against because of the content they produce.” He undoubtedly means free speech apps such as Rumble, GETTR, and Parler, which either have been censored or forced to censor their own users due to the Apple and Google Play rules. Many on the Left oppose the bill for the same reason. Carmen Scurato of the misnamed Free Press said the bill has a “Hate and Disinformation Loophole”

Both the bill’s conservative supporters and liberal opponents, however, are ignoring a huge loophole which will actually allow more Big Tech censorship. The bill empowers Big Tech platforms to block or discriminate against content to “protect safety, user privacy, the security of non-public data, or the security of the covered platform” Privacy and security are well defined terms in cyber law, but safety is a far vaguer and broad term. 

Online safety used to be focused on preventing actual criminal activity and violence—such as preventing the sale of illegal drugs or barring sexual predators from using a platform to lure victims. Now Silicon Valley effectively defines it to mean a “safe space.” 

Responding to the Joe Rogan controversy, Spotify CEO Daniel Elk said he wanted to balance free expression “with the safety of our users.” Spotify’s content moderation team is called “trust and safety”—the same name used by Twitter and YouTube. Facebook and Apple also have “safety” centers, which address content moderation. 

Twitter’s rules also include a special section for “safety,” which encompasses its ever-changing and amorphous policies against speech it just doesn’t like such as “COVID misinformation,” which it calls speech “likely to impact public safety.” On the Rogan controversy, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki made it clear where the Biden Administration stands, demanding that “every platform continue doing more to call out misinformation.”

The ACIOA gives authority to the Federal Trade Commission to interpret the law through regulations. Biden’s FTC Chair Lina Khan leaves little doubt what she considers a threat to online “safety.” She has attacked Silicon Valley for not doing enough to censor speech—saying that antitrust should be used to prevent “dissemination of disinformation and inflammatory content.”  

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin penned these words as America’s colonial government wanted to raise armies to fight against violent incursions on the frontier during the French and Indian War. The American Choice and Innovation Online Act will sacrifice freedom to suppress constitutionally protected “offensive speech.” The Senate must clearly define “speech” to narrowly address content and apps which allow for violence or illegal behavior, not simply speech the Left condemns.

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About Paul Bradford

Paul Bradford is a Capitol Hill refugee now earning an honest living.

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