One of the strangest developments of the Trump administration may be the administration’s resistance to a broader, bipartisan, effort to regulate social media companies — from outright bans to stronger regulations. The administration, of course, objects to any regulatory intervention in the tech sector on the grounds that it would unnecessarily hamper innovation and it’s easy to see why.
But the aim of the new federal legislation, passed by the House earlier this year and now pending in the Senate, is not merely to restrict the social-media companies; it’s to limit them in practice — and as such, it represents a significant policy step.
Its principal provisions are these:
— Penalties for journalists who violate social-media sites’ terms of service could be imposed as high as $500,000 per violation, though, as I wrote, many have much smaller violations;
— Programs could be cut off for sex offenders or terrorists or politicians with prior convictions;
— Lawyers for advertisers and others suing the social-media sites could have their cases take longer, and so could get less money out of social-media sites;
— Payments for posts (a business for some bloggers) could be cut off as well.
The policy concerns represent a bold response to a growing problem for the whole economy — and in the midst of a Donald Trump administration that seems to be resorting to widespread rule-breaking on the part of large corporations.
It’s therefore surprising that the administration opposes these basic, bipartisan norms. Yes, Silicon Valley has already vigorously lobbied against the bill. But, in this case, the financial stakes may well be great enough to ensure that the Senate passes the bill, even if the president and his people oppose it.
In a sense, one of the distinctions between the United States and many European nations lies in the degree to which social media companies are obliged to keep public information, and thus free information, readily available to citizens. In many European countries, the same companies that publish data about the number of users would not have to keep that data, and published reports about those users, private. Meanwhile, social media sites in the United States would be required to keep the government on a short leash.
President Trump has made this position plain.
The dilemma is that, to Twitter, Facebook, and others, it could seem like a menace if governments regulated this crucial medium of communication. But, to citizens of all stripes, it could also seem like the recipe for censorship — or worse. Even if, however, the real motive behind many of the proposed rules is that, while companies of this size should be able to function, governments should also be able to decide who has access to them.
And that creates a crisis for the tech sector. The government seems determined to make the playing field even larger between public and private information, and it does so by making it harder for both parties to acquire that information.
Social media are about a lot more than large companies sending people “tweetdeck.” They are also about keeping the idea of a free republic alive, in a time when right-wing populism has decisively superseded public opinion as the organizing principle of public life. That, among other things, explains why a president whose constituents, like his efforts to undermine the EPA, seem to be unaware of where he stands on Social Media, has been so willing to push for such a backward measure.
Civic life may well be in the process of losing a key component: access to publicly-available information, and power to decide how — or whether — that information can be used. If so, we may well find ourselves in a very interesting, but frightening, new era.