Creating State Action Via Antitrust Law And Making The People Who've Been Wrong About The Constitutionality Of Content Moderation Suddenly Right
from the stopped-clocks dept
The challenge of a 24+ hour legislative session covering multiple bills is that it’s hard to keep track of everything that happens. In my last post I wrote about a few impressions and examples that I happened to catch. This post is about another.
Plenty of people on both sides of the aisle have been plenty wrong about content moderation on the Internet. Many Democrats get it very wrong, and so do many Republicans. In the case of people like Reps. Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, their particular flavor of wrongness has been to rant and rave about the private editorial decisions platforms have made to remove the speech they think they should have the right to make on these services, no matter what. They complain that what these platforms are doing to their posts must somehow be violating their First Amendment rights?and they are completely and utterly wrong on that point. Platforms are private actors with their own First Amendment rights to choose what speech to associate with. Making those decisions, even in ways some people (including these Congressmen) don’t like, is entirely legal and THEIR constitutional right to exercise. It in no way impinges on the First Amendment rights of any would-be user of their service to refuse their expression.
But these Congressmen and some of their similarly-minded colleagues have noticed that if these antitrust bills should become law in anything close to their current form their speech will continue to be denied access to these services. And this time that denial may well represent an unconstitutional incursion on their speech rights. Because it’s one thing if the platforms make their own independent editorial decisions on whether to facilitate or deny certain user speech, including these Congressmen’s speech. But it’s another when government pressure forces platforms’ hand to make those decisions in any particular way. And that’s what these bills threaten to do.
One such way that they flagged is through the bills’ demands for interoperability. Interoperability sounds like a nice idea in theory, but in practice there are significant issues with privacy, security, and even potentially content moderation, especially when it is demanded. Because one of the problems with an interoperability mandate is that it’s hard to tell if, in being interoperable, one platform needs to adopt the same moderation policies of another platform they are trying to interoperate with. If the answer is yes, then suddenly platforms are no longer getting to make their own editorial decisions; now they are making editorial decisions the government is forcing them to make. Which means that when they impose them against certain user speech it now is at the behest of the state and therefore likely a violation of those users speech rights, which are rights that protect their speech against state action.
But even if a platform opts not to conform its moderation policies, the constitutional problem would remain. Because if these bills were to become law in their current form, the decision not to conform moderation policies might still be seen to flout the law’s requirement for interoperability. And, at least initially, it would be up to the FTC to decide whether it does and thus warrants taking an enforcement action against the platform. But that means that the FTC could easily be in the position of making content-based decisions in order to decide whether the platform’s content moderation decision (in this case not to conform) looks like an antitrust violation or not. This situation deeply concerned these Congressmen, who also happen to be of the belief that the FTC is a captured agency prone to making content decisions that conflict with their own preferred viewpoints. While their concerns generally seem overwrought, bills like these start to give them an air of legitimacy. Because regardless of whether the FTC actually is captured by any particular point of view or not, if it is going to make ANY enforcement decision predicated on any expressive decisions, that’s a huge Constitutional problem, irrespective of which point of view may suffer or benefit from such government action.
So while it is very difficult to credit the particular outrage of these Congressmen, their alarm illustrates the fundamental problem with these bills and other similar legislative efforts (including some anti-Section 230 bills that these Congressmen favor): these targeted businesses are not ordinary companies selling ordinary products and services where market forces act in traditional market-driven ways. These are platforms and services handling SPEECH. And when companies are in the speech-handling business we can’t treat them like non-speech businesses without impinging on those speech interests themselves in an unconstitutional “make no law” sort of way.
But that is exactly what Congress is deliberately trying to do. It is the government’s displeasure with how these companies have been intermediating speech that is at the root of these regulatory efforts. It’s not a case of, “These companies are big, maybe that’s bad, and oops! Our regulatory efforts have accidentally implicated a speech interest.” The whole acknowledged point of these regulatory efforts is to target companies that are “different,” and the way they are different is because they are companies in the online speech business. Congress is deliberately trying to make a law that will shape how companies do that business. And the fact that its efforts are running headlong into some of the most provocative political speech interests of the day is Exhibit A for why the whole endeavor is an unconstitutional one.