Facebook should tell Congress to f**k off

May 16, 2016
Peter Scheer

Peter Scheer

OPINION by PETER SCHEER

Facebook wants you, me and the federal government to believe that the selection and prominence of content on Facebook, particularly in its “trending stories” feature, has nothing to do with human judgment or choice.

This has long been Facebook’s public posture, and it was its initial knee-jerk response this week to a news story, appearing in Gizmodo, that was sourced to anonymous, and apparently disaffected, contractors hired by Facebook to monitor the selection of news items identified on Facebook as “trending.”

The story, claiming that the contractors spiked “conservative” news stories while overriding the company’s algorithms to insert “liberal” items in the feed, soon got the attention of Republican members of Congress (who, plainly, have way too much time on their hands).

By Tuesday, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, fired off a letter to Facebook demanding to know  “if there’s any level of subjectivity associated with” Facebook’s trending news stories. Facebook responded, defensively, that it was “continuing to investigate whether” there were “any violations” of its neutrality policy and that it looked forward to addressing the Senator’s  questions.

Facebook is about to make a big mistake.

Rather than disclaim charges of human fingerprints on stories that it publishes or links to, it should defend vigorously its right to include in its “trending” section any news stories it chooses. While disputing the critique that its story choices skew left, it should make loud and clear its claim of exclusive authority to decide whether, where, how and when to publish content.

As a first step, Facebook should tell Congress, as diplomatically as it wishes, to f**k off.

Congress has no more power to inquire into Facebook’s decision-making in this area than to second-guess the editorial judgments of the New York Times or Medium.com. Congress can kick and scream all it wants (free speech being a two-way street), but it can’t interrogate Facebook, much less dictate its own editorial preferences. The First Amendment vests all editorial authority in Facebook.

Facebook wants to be everybody’s friend. Like other highly successful tech companies, it is, by instinct and culture, averse to acknowledging a human or subjective dimension to the choices behind the content that its users see. That stance has served Facebook  well through its long run of exponential growth. But its success now threatens competitors, who have tapped their to Washington lawyers and lobbyists to put Facebook in regulators’ sights.

Facebook’s nightmare scenario: To have the government treat it as a public utility to be circumscribed and defanged, rather than as a high-tech innovator to be feted and encouraged. Sound familiar? Think Microsoft in 1998, when the Justice Department, lobbied by the company’s competitors in Silicon Valley, was persuaded of the urgent need to use the antitrust laws to deflate Microsoft’s lofty ambitions.

Facebook faces a similar inflection point.

To avoid the death by a thousand regulatory lashes that was Microsoft’s fate for nearly two decades, Facebook should embrace the protections of the First Amendment. Facebook is not an empty platform to be filled by others. It is a community, a “social network,” that is rich in third-party content. And, crucially, that third-party content is curated by Facebook.

Whether the curatorial function is performed by computers or editors in a smoke-filled newsroom doesn’t matter. The point is that Facebook is making editorial choices; ergo, Facebook enjoys the highest degree of First Amendment protection.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position of FAC’s Board of Directors.


Loading...
Rich in MB

As a private Company FaceBook has the freedom to do as the choose, when it comes to their site and platforms. The small government conservatives need to grow a pair and stand on principals of freedom.


slojustice

When our politicians say they want to look into something that is just”code” for I want some lobbyists cash!


CentralcoastRN

If the government doesn’t like it, they can make their own “facebook”. They can call it “2Face”. There, they can post whatever they like– maybe things like:


1. How to dump your car into a river with your secretary in it and drown her, but get away with it because you are a _______________.


2. How to get the “look of shame” down pat.


3. How to smoke crack and yet still work in Congress.


Oh, the list could go on and on!


I bet they could even get the taxpayers to fund it by streaming it to Obamaphones and taxing paying cell phone customers for it. We all need more taxes in our lives anyway….


Rambunctious

Fakebook is such a bore…who cares…a few years ago they blocked a page that was set up by former military personnel concerned about our decision to pull out of Iraq. That’s when I extricated myself from Fakebook and it wasn’t easy….it’s like pulling teeth to get Fakebook out of your life. Cut your ties ASAP with Fakebook for you own good. Plus; the kid in the wrinkled T-Shirt is creepy.


r0y

I love how congress “takes action” on symptoms, and not the actual problem. The way I see it, even if facebook played the numbers, it is difficult to find “conservative” or even “non-liberal-goofy-left” type stories when one peruses the national, old-fashioned style media companies. They are left. Quite left. This is not even argued anymore, the only thing in our entertainment, political, and information culture that the left does not permeate is talk radio, essentially.


I would imagine that facebook would have to actively put in conservative-leaning or non-liberal-insane stories to achieve a balance, ironically. They will not, of course; mainly because conservative thought is just that: thought. It usually is more popular when given a fair shot (not always, but more often than not).


I agree with the author here, the government has no business sticking its nose into anyone’s business. This also goes for these fake “civil rights” arguments of late. I only hope people can see that the less power we give to the government, the better everyone’s lives will be – even if you stand to “gain” something from empowering the government, it is a fool’s errand.


Perspicacious

I actually agree with the author. I am a conservative and I think the gubment has no business telling PRIVATE organizations what to do. Who I find fault with are the idiots who use Fakebook and depend on it for their life and actually think Fakebook is fair. Fools. Google is exactly the same, if not worse than Fakebook.


Slosum

I don’t FB. But I know many think it’s a legitimate “news” source. I’m not sure there is such a thing anymore… at least in terms of impartiality. Probably never was. The media world has always been a magnet for those genetically predisposed to left-think. But getting the government involved in almost anything never ends well. Especially free speech.


Rambunctious

Propaganda… get you news from somewhere other than fakebook!


tomsquawk

“Whether the curatorial function is performed by computers or editors in a smoke-filled newsroom doesn’t matter. The point is that Facebook is making editorial choices; ergo, Facebook enjoys the highest degree of First Amendment protection.”


Agreed. Readers need to consider the source, same with WaPo and NYT. Perhaps readers should read some “foreign” news sources starting with Canadian newspapers.


Most of what one reads is an advertisement, anyway.


laftch

RT.com,if you really want to find out what is happening in the world.


paragon

Comrade Putin thanks you for your support of his communist propaganda outlet.