Are social media platforms publishers or common carriers? It’s an important distinction and it’s becoming an important question that needs to be answered by those corporations that have become monopolies in their distinct areas. We can all name them: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube are among the largest and seem to have a lot of discretion over what is seen or read on their various platforms. Unfortunately, the basic question has risen to the level of government asking the same question and the end result may not be something that the general public may appreciate.
I’m generally against government intervention, or regulation, of private business. If the regulation concerns safety, then I’m okay with it, as long as the government doesn’t go to far as to drive a perfectly legitimate company out of business. We’ve seen this in the past, especially when it affects small businesses. These mega-corporations though, are different, and their self regulation doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of users. Although they all claim that there is no bias in any decisions they make as to what is published on their sites, it appears to many that there is just that. the Terms of Service or Community Standards seem to be enforced by whim, or as some have accused, ideology.
Just recently, a pro-life movie, Unplanned, had their Twitter account suspended n- on the day the movie was released. No reason was given, A few hours later, it was reported and Twitter said that the account was suspended by mistake. That seems to happen a lot on that platform. Either their algorithm needs to be tweaked, or they need to let their “Trust and Safety” team know that accounts may not be suspended just because they disagree with the subject or the the users ideology. No matter how much poor press these platforms, especially Twitter receive, it doesn’t appear they’re in any hurry to change policies to protect all users. Thus, government involvement may be imminent.
If the government decides that these platforms are publishers, then they may come under the same regulations as others. The reason they may be categorized this way is that they are the arbiters of what is seen on their sites. If they suspend, ban accounts, remove user content, those accounts and content that are not illegal, then yes, they may be considered a publisher.
These platforms need to clearly define, for all users, what their standards are. I’ve seen content on Twitter that I personally find offensive, but I don’t have a right, at least in my country, to not be offended. I have options: I can mute or block that user. A threat however, is something else and that’s where one of the problems exist. What constitutes a threat? If I say, “You’re a corrupt scumbag and we’re coming after you.”, is that a threat? Some may say yes, but then I may only mean that euphemistically, in that I’m going to publish more information to prove what I have alleged about that person.
Doxxing and making actual threats, as in, “I’m coming to kill you and your family”, or “Here’s his(her) address and phone number”, even, “Let’s find out these kids names and addresses and dox them”(like Kathy Griffin did to the Covington Catholic boys a few months back), should result in an immediate suspension if not outright permanent ban from the platform. Inciting followers to mob another user because of a disagreement on their views, or publishing false or illegal information about another person, should also constitute a violation.
The rules, or community guidelines, or whatever they’re called, need to be clear and unambiguous for all users. If this isn’t implemented soon, don’t be surprised when the government becomes involved. Many now are actually cheering for that to happen. As I said, I’d prefer they didn’t because we all know what happens when the government becomes involved and mostly it’s detrimental, even with the best intentions.