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Regulate Social Media Like Public Utilities

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
AP Photo/Nick Wass

Democracy took a big blow when Twitter shut down President Donald Trump's accounts and Google and Amazon ousted Parler, a site favored by millions of conservatives.

Big Tech, which is run by the left, is robbing Americans of their right to communicate freely and exchange ideas.

The nation's founders worried that the government would use its power to censure and crush competing viewpoints. Their remedy was the First Amendment, guaranteeing all of us freedom of speech and association and barring government censorship. They had no way of anticipating that tech companies would grow more powerful than governments and have the monopolistic ability to suppress or cancel political viewpoints.

Yet, Facebook and Twitter now "wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions," explains ACLU lawyer Kate Ruane.

And Google, now the eponym for all internet searching, suppresses content by placing it on a distant page few searchers will ever get to.

At one time, newspapers were the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas. No more. After Trump's Twitter accounts were canceled, The New York Times' tech newsletter advocated more censorship, not less. It called for censoring "habitual online misleaders," and cracking down on some 25 "influential repeat spreaders of false information," such as radio host and Fox News contributor Dan Bongino.

Who decides what's false? For 200 years, Americans believed, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."

Now the public is supposed to capitulate to what the lefties working for Twitter and other Big Tech companies say is true.

Twitter and Facebook posed as "fact-checkers" to limit the spread of accurate New York Post reporting about incriminating content on Hunter Biden's laptop. They wanted to make sure the average American voter didn't see it before voting.

Americans should be outraged over this high-tech tyranny. It's robbing them of access to the market place of ideas and threatening to destroy political freedom. Elections aren't fair if voters are kept from hearing competing views and the facts about the candidates.

What's the solution? So far, the focus has been on repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects the tech giants from being sued for what they post, based on the fiction that they are merely unbiased platforms. Republicans want their liability removed, but that may incentivize them to limit content even more, just as many Democrats want.

The better approach is to treat these tech platforms as public utilities, just like water, electric, phone and gas companies, and regulate them as utilities. They're monopolies, and they provide essential services to a dependent public. Public utilities cannot withhold services from some customers based on their political views.

Trump proposed a similar approach last July. But with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, that's unlikely to happen. Help is more likely to come from the Supreme Court when a litigant challenges being censored by a tech giant. The justices are poised to protect access to social media as a fundamental right.

In 2017, the high court struck down a North Carolina law that barred registered sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and similar tech platforms. The justices unanimously ruled that the North Carolina law deprived sex offenders of their right to find out what members of their government are saying and doing. Justice Elena Kagan called social media "a crucially important channel of political communication."

If sex offenders are guaranteed access to social media, how can conservatives be blocked?

Expect the justices to broaden the First Amendment to limit tech abuses.

The Constitution bars government from limiting what we see and hear, so why should five tech companies that no one elected have that power?

Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and author of "The Next Pandemic," available at Amazon.com. Contact her at betsy@betsymccaughey.com or on Twitter @Betsy_McCaughey. 

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