Time to Rein in Social Media

Because it is secretly taking over America.

Traditional news media — broadcast and print — are subject to quite strict regulation by the Federal government. The primary restriction relates to OWNERSHIP of the entities, as the content they publish is, in most cases, protected by the 1st Amendment. And, in exchange for exclusive use of a “scarce and publically-owned resource” (broadcast spectrum), broadcasters have since 1934 been required to operate in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

The ownership restrictions came about in the 1970s, before cable news and the Internet upended what was a staid and serious business, at a time when there was widespread concern that foreign ownership might well influence editorial processes and views in ways contrary to our national interests.

Now, the major and perhaps some minor social media enterprises are quite visibly being misused by foreign enterprises for nefarious purposes that cut to the core of our democratic system. The bad actors don’t need a license, don’t have to own anything to execute their dirty work, and are, in many cases, beyond the reach of our legal system. Extending the restrictions already applied to broadcast outlets to social media platforms wouldn’t solve the problem.

The problem now is foreign interests –often using several levels of disguises—uses the openness of social media platforms to spread propaganda and misinformation with the intention of distorting our elections and undermining our institutions.

Here’s the rub: There is literally nothing to stop them but the good will of people like Mark Zuckerberg who have already been exposed as severely lacking it. Unlike their traditional brethren, the Internet and social media are the Wild West of modern communication. For fear of stifling innovation, regulators and legislators alike let these platforms evolve without restraint. They are not even responsible for the content they publish! In this “anything goes” environment, it shouldn’t be shocking that social media – Facebook in particular – became a data-sucking cash machine trading on the personal information of its billions of individual publishers. It’s even less surprising that bad actors have figured out how to exploit the famous algorithms to shape opinions, sow chaos and terrorize people.

One might hope and think that our social media enterprises would self-police. But they simply have not and show no sincere signs of any desire or effort to so do. That quite likely has to do with their greed to maintain and grow revenues.

In this new era, the limited resource is platforms, not spectrum. If users want to reach the largest possible audience, they have little choice but to be on Facebook (and its subsidiary platform, Instagram). The idea that others could start a new social media network to compete with the Big Three (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) is laughable, given the billions of dollars in investment that would be required, and the 15 year head-start of the others.  (Even GOOGLE couldn’t pull it off – they recently pulled the plug on their own, failed, social media network, Google+).

I make no assertions as to the details of a regulatory structure that might allow us to reclaim our sovereignty. It could be as simple as incentives (or disincentives) to compel increased self-policing, or a full-fledged regulatory framework appropriate to pseudo-monopolies (as is the case with cable licensees, utilities and, once, Ma Bell).

However Congress chooses to go about it, they should hurry. The problems are growing, tactics are getting more sophisticated, and another Presidential election is looming.

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