About a week ago, the WSJ ran an article titled Mark Zuckerberg is No James Madison. The article argues that a constitution is similar to a block of computer code—a valid point, although I would argue it is also true of legislation and contracts in general…both the code, and the constitution/law/contract must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous to be executable without reference to their originators.
Then the article goes on to say that ‘the Constitution understands human nature. Facebook, dangerously at times does not. In designing the Constitution, Madison managed to appeal to people’s better angels while at the same time calculating man’s capacity to harm and behave badly. Facebook’s designers, on the other hand, appear to have assumed the best about people. They apparently expected users to connect with friends only in benign ways. While the site features plenty of baby and puppy photos, it has also become a place where ISIS brags about beheadings and Russians peddling misinformation seek to undermine the institutions of a free society.’
The attempt to create a parallel between Zuckerberg and Madison is a strange one, IMO, given the completely different nature of the work the two men were doing. Madison was attempting to create a new model for a self-governing country, Zuckerberg was attempting to make money for himself and his investors, and maybe to provide a little fun and value for his users along the way.
What I find especially problematic is the ‘therefore’ that the author draws:
Facebook insists it is not a media company. Maybe so. But unless it takes on the responsibilities of an editor and publisher by verifying the identities of users, filtering content that runs on its platform, and addressing the incentives to post specious or inflammatory “facts,” Facebook should expect to be policed externally.
But is Facebook really a publisher, or it is it more of a printer? If someone..Ben Franklin in the mid-1700s or some corporation today…is running a printing shop, running printing jobs for all who will pay, should he or it be held accountable for validating the truth of the material printed and verifying the identities of the customers?
A traditional web hosting company, I would argue, is far closer to a printer than to a publisher: it is providing technical services for the distribution of content which is originated and controlled by others. A social media company such as Facebook, which prioritizes some content over other content in its feeds, disallows certain content, sells advertising closely linked to highly granular user characteristics, etc..is not so close to a traditional printer, but neither is it a traditional publisher: it is really a new sort of entity.
In my view, it would be highly dangerous to legally require FB (or any other social media company) to verify the identities of users and especially to require users to post under their real and identifiable names. This could be an opening wedge leading us back in the direction of licensing printers and requiring an imprimatur on publications. Requiring social media companies to flag and delete posts that involve death threats or other threats of violence certainly seems reasonable–but, especially in today’s fevered political climate, it would likely shade into also requiring the suppression of ‘hate speech’, to be defined as anything sufficiently outside the Overton Window of conventional thinking, as that conventional thinking exists at any particular point in time.
There are serious issues with social media, but the solution should not involve returning to a world of ‘gatekeeper’ media, still less reversing this country’s and the world’s progress toward freedom of the press.