FRC Panel Discussion: Who Owns Free Speech on the Internet?

FRC had the privilege to host a distinguished group of speakers for a panel on social media called: “Losing Our Voices: Who Owns Free Speech on the Internet.” The moderator, Sarah Parshall Perry, led a nuanced discussion that included Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chair of a key telecommunications subcommittees in the House, Brent Skorup, Senior Research Fellow from the free-market oriented Mercatus Center (Arlington, Va.), and Craig Parshall, long-time communications attorney and special counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice.

Several things became clear during the course of the proceeding. First, the bloom is off the Silicon Valley rose. That is, the days of giving the Silicon Valley companies the benefit of the doubt has passed. The Cambridge Analytica revelations were significant not only because they prompted Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the Congress for two days. More significantly, vast swathes of the public now comprehend at a deeper level why the term “surveillance capitalism” has been coined. We are being sold when we use Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple social media. The Congress now intends to drill down and examine the important privacy implications for this relatively new business model, but Rep. Blackburn made clear that regulations need to have a “light touch” in order to protect social medial users while preserving the benefits this business model brings.

Another area of great concern involves the suppression of ideas and content by the tech companies. Brent Skorup began the discussion with an excellent reminder that the internet — even with its problems — has given us more access to thoughts and ideas from around the world at a level that would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. This is a tremendous development in human affairs, but as Craig Parshall noted Silicon Valley has established a long pattern of censorship going back years and starting with Apple’s suppression of the pro-traditional marriage statement, the “Manhattan Declaration” in November 2010. Discrimination against conservatives and Christians is common and becoming more ubiquitous as YouTube’s war against the innocuous Prager University has made clear.

That said, the panelists were wary of the regulations that would give the government control over speech on these platforms. Replacing one type of censorship with another would not be beneficial in the longer term. It did seem that a proposal Craig Parshall supported may offer a path forward. He has argued the social media companies should voluntarily adopt a code of conduct that could generally approximate the broad free speech principles set forth in First Amendment law. Perhaps, this could be could be coupled with the acceptance of an appeal process somewhat akin to arbitration or mediation. This could be a positive first step — if only Silicon Valley would give it serious consideration. They would be wise to do so.

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Watch entire discussion below.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Tony Perkins is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. He is a former member of the Louisiana legislature where he served for eight years, and he is recognized as a legislative pioneer for authoring measures like the nation’s first Covenant Marriage law. (Via FRC’s Washington Update. Tony Perkins’ Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.)
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