It’s way past time that all of us understand how dominant technology companies have expanded in ways that could threaten American commerce as well as American life.
Companies like Google and Facebook have long taken advantage of the general public’s and Congress’s lack of awareness about how their businesses were structured to scale in ways that narrowed the internet superhighway to a few lanes. The federal government has now concluded both companies are monopolies and is suing to pull them apart.
The Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust suit against Facebook filed last week, along with a similar suit filed by 48 states, represents the serious possibility that Facebook will be broken up and that its “buy or bury” approach to competition will no longer be permitted.
When the government filed an antitrust suit against Google, we warned that it will be a high bar to prove the case. That is true here, too, although the government’s allegations that Facebook stifled potential competitors’ access to its platform raises troubling questions that Facebook will have to answer.
Whatever the outcome, it will take years of hard-fought litigation to decide.
In the meantime, Congress cannot let the antitrust suits turn its attention from more urgent reforms that are needed for social media.
It’s been interesting to watch others come around at last to the desperate need for reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This clause — often called the 26 words that created the internet — is really at the heart of why we have an anti-competitive internet environment.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter dominate social media because Section 230 almost totally insulates them from liability for third-party posts. Why are fake news and grossly libelous hate speech rampant on these platforms? Because the companies have little to worry about from a legal perspective. Only the court of public opinion can hold them responsible.
It’s heartening that every side of the political aisle is now howling for reform. But such reform must be thoughtful and drafted to ensure that platforms are not permitted to remain a free-for-all of libel and illegal content. Nor can they be permitted to selectively edit content while enjoying freedom from the liability standards that publishers like this newspaper are held to every day.
This is not a partisan issue. President Donald Trump has called for the repeal of Section 230 — albeit in an unproductive way — by threatening to hold up the Defense Authorization bill. President-elect Joe Biden has also called for 230 to be revoked.
So it now appears to be a matter of when, not if, Section 230 is revised.
Such reform must offer a path forward for a fairer internet where people can still interact in the best ways social media offers but without empowering massive social media firms that distort the public conversation without consequence.
A corollary to this reform will be stricter data privacy regulations that prevent internet companies from harvesting data, building user profiles and selling deeply personal material about its own consumers on the open market. That should have been unacceptable from the get go.
Antitrust law is complex and hard to prove. Consumer harm — at least in the traditional sense of harm to our pocketbook — is hard to see in these cases.
Reforming the internet can’t wait for these cases to be concluded. Congress must act as soon as possible.