The First Amendment doesn't mean carte blanche for Big Tech

There are reasons to be skeptical that self-regulation will be enough. Perhaps the primary reason is the fact that, notwithstanding their presumably sincere commitment to freedom of speech, social-media companies are, in the end, for-profit entities that offer a forum for speech in order to make money. Will they protect expressive freedom even when it conflicts with corporate profits? Conversely, outside the extraordinary circumstances of the Capitol invasion, will they take down genuinely harmful speech that brings readers to their platforms? Past history suggests that the answer to both of these questions will be no. Certainly the often–ad hoc and inconsistent decision making that the platforms demonstrated during the 2020 election campaign is alone concerning.

Given all of this, it is worth considering a third option that has been used in the past, and could once again be used, to protect expressive freedom from private power: laws requiring that the private media companies governing the mass public sphere abide by basic nondiscrimination and, often, due-process obligations. Even when the First Amendment intruded further into the private sphere than it does today, statutory nondiscrimination and due-process requirements were lawmakers’ primary tools to ensure that the private companies that controlled the telegraph and telephone wires, the radio and television airwaves, and the cable networks did not use their power to discriminate in favor of certain political viewpoints, or otherwise undermine the vitality of public debate. The most famous, and controversial, example of these laws was the Fairness Doctrine, which imposed extensive, if vague, nondiscrimination duties on radio and television broadcasters, and to an extent, cable-television companies, from the 1930s until the late ’80s, when Ronald Reagan’s FCC repealed it. But the Fairness Doctrine is only one example of a much wider array of media nondiscrimination laws, many of which continue to ensure, to this day, that, as one senator put it in 1926, the “few men” who control the “great publicity vehicles” of radio and television do not limit the range of ideas and viewpoints that the public can hear.