Speak in the new public square
After the Capitol Riot, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon each took action to tackle disinformation and incitement, resulting in digital suspensions for President Trump, thousands of QAnon conspiracy accounts and the Talking social media platform. Taken together, these measures demonstrated Big Tech’s vast influence in the ideas market – a power that worries lawmakers on the right and the left.
Talking sues Amazon to suspend web hosting services, which effectively shut down the platform. In his suit, Parler said Amazon’s move was “motivated by political animosity” and “designed to reduce competition in the microblogging service market for the benefit of Twitter.” Experts told DealBook that Parler’s complaint contained elements of a successful antitrust claim, including victim, villain, and prejudice by exclusion. But one key piece is missing: an economic theory to explain Amazon’s motivation to exclude Speaking for Twitter, another Amazon customer. Speaking also undermines its antitrust arguments by citing political animosity, they said.
“There is an important problem hiding here” noted Douglas Melamed of Stanford Law School, a former deputy attorney general who headed the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. He said he had “no quarrels” with the President or Speaking being cut off. But, he added, “In the long run, everyone should be worried that a few companies have enormous power, especially when free speech is involved. It might justify some sort of breakup.
The first amendment only applies to public actors, not private, so Amazon does not violate any constitutional rights by giving up Speaking. But there are considerations about free speech, said Geneviève Lakier, a First Amendment specialist at the University of Chicago. If a few private actors control public discourse, there is little assurance that they will publish a diversity of ideas. She asked, “Should Congress step in and make more rules?”
Speaking of rules, Mr. Trump renewed his vows to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms from any liability for user content. Republicans argue platforms discriminate against them and should moderate less, while Democrats seek a stricter hate speech policy. Lawyers say repealing the legal shield would subject companies to defamation lawsuits, but more importantly could punish the general public. This would make platforms more cautious, which would mean less solid public debate, said Katie Fallow of the Knight First Amendment Institute. She suggested “a thoughtful reform around the edges”.