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Heritage Foundation Report: Address online bias by championing free enterprise  

Nov 21, 2019 by AFP

A growing chorus of voices in Congress have called for increased government control of the internet to punish alleged online bias.

Many, including Sen. Josh Hawley from the right and Sen. Elizabeth Warren from the left, have attempted to enact top-down legislative action to address the issue. For example, Sen. Hawley’s recently introduced Support for Internet Censorship Act (S. 1914) is more likely to erode free speech than to protect it.

But are lawmakers really the best fit for setting internet speech rules? In a recent report, The Heritage Foundation made a clear, free-market case for addressing online bias by rejecting heavy-handed government approaches.

Senior Research Fellow Diane Katz argues in the report that “site curation — including the right to exclude content — is the prerogative of privately owned platforms and should not be regulated by government.”

She contends that online bias is best addressed by empowering consumers, spurring competition through deregulation, and encouraging innovation by championing free enterprise.

As Katz notes, history has shown government efforts to legislate “fairness,” as Sen. Hawley is attempting, have a record of failure. One of numerous examples, the imposition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission yielded perverse unintended consequences.

The FCC required broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” Broadcasters recognized that “fairness” was an vague concept that couldn’t be measured, so they opted to avoid any topic with the slightest tinge of controversy. The result? A less informed public.

Those are the stakes of Sen. Hawley’s bill and other command-and-control approaches to free expression. In her report, Katz provides recommendations for both policymakers and the public to consider, when thinking about speech online:

Recommendations for Policymakers:

  • First, do no harm. The proper role of government in technology policy should be limited to securing the national defense, protecting and defending voluntary transactions (such as contracts, investments, and acquisitions), and settling disputes in matters of law.
  • Protect Internet freedom. Congress and the Administration must embrace policies that protect Internet freedom and reject retributive regulation. The nation’s technological progress largely depends on upholding the fundamental principles of free enterprise, limited government, and property rights.
  • Reject reliance on government solutions. Policymakers must recognize that government bureaucracy is neither impartial nor altruistic. Free enterprise allows consumers and investors to act in the present based on their own information and preferences. Penalties for errors in judgment are swift and strict. In many instances, consumers and investors can exact more effective punishment than can regulators.

Recommendations for the Public:

  • Take private action. The public should support deregulation of telecommunications, and advocate for change through private action—such as by petitioning elected representatives, communicating with company executives, opting for competing services, and joining advocacy groups. Decades of experience have demonstrated that conservative media have benefited far more from deregulation than regulation. The likelihood of regulatory blunders by government is very high and the consequences grave, including stifling innovation, suppressing free speech, and solidifying the dominance of incumbents for years to come.
  • Establish alternatives. The Internet offers virtually unlimited opportunities to create new channels for conservative content. Members of the public can put principles of free enterprise into action—by marshaling public support and private resources for alternatives. The point is not to overcome the popularity of Google or Facebook, but to secure independent means to communicate directly with target audiences.
  • Pursue remedial action for excluded content, as appropriate. It is the prerogative of private platforms to moderate content based on their own community standards (or other criteria). But most sites also provide appeal procedures for instances in which excluded content appears to be arbitrary.
  • Hold platforms accountable for their content management. The most constructive means of increasing accountability for platforms’ conduct is to make use of and support responsible methods of monitoring and fact-checking information on websites.

Lawmakers should allow privately owned platforms to manage their own content without government overreach. Government licensing of online speech would increase censorship — not prevent it. That is why Americans for Prosperity joined with 53 academics and 27 other civil society organizations to sign a statement of principles for lawmakers who are considering changes to this area of the law.

Read the full report from The Heritage Foundation here.