Social Media Platforms Have Right to Determine What Speech They Permit, ITIF Says

September 5, 2018

WASHINGTON—Following today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the world’s top-ranked science and tech policy think tank, released the following statement from ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro:

Today’s hearing was an important opportunity to explore how the government, industry, and civil society can combat misconduct on social media platforms by foreign operators. From the testimony, it is clear that companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken important steps to detect illegitimate users, identify fake news, and increase ad transparency. While these companies still have much more work ahead of them, it is premature to start calling for new regulations. For example, calls to require social media platforms to assign specific labels to automated bots or false information are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, because correctly distinguishing between humans and bots and true versus false information is an exceedingly complex challenge. Congress may prefer that the private sector solve this problem overnight, but that is unlikely to occur.

Social media platforms find themselves caught between some policymakers arguing that they have a moral and legal obligation to remove legal, but offensive, content, and others who are calling for these companies to be punished for censoring some of this extreme political speech. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) today released a statement saying that it was convening state attorneys general to discuss its concerns that these companies were “hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas.” Social media platforms have the right to determine what types of legal speech they will permit on their platforms. It is inappropriate for the federal government to use the threat of law enforcement to limit companies from exercising this right. In particular, law enforcement should not threaten social media companies with unwarranted investigations for their efforts to rid their platforms of extremists who incite hate and violence.

Today’s calls for stricter regulation of digital platforms will be observed by foreign legislators in capitals around the world. While the United States upholds strong protections for free speech, this is not true everywhere, and social media platforms are facing growing calls from foreign governments to censor their content not only in foreign countries but globally. The U.S. government would better serve its citizens and businesses if it defended the value of using a light-touch regulatory approach on social media platforms both domestically and abroad.