Poor Richard’s Rules for Huge Tech

Things to consider social media? In some ways, the question is unprecedented. Social networking are new, and so the case is new. Nevertheless it might not be so new as some believe. In actuality, a departure in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography might shed some light on the dilemma of how to balance the competing imperatives of their freedom of the press and the rights of publishers.

Benjamin Franklin’s Printing Press

Towards the conclusion of Part II of this Autobiography, Franklin discusses his Comprehension of his rights and responsibilities as the owner of a printing press and also the writer of a paper:

Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that sort, and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press, and a newspaper was like a stage-coach, where almost any one who would pay had a right to a place, my answer was, I would print the piece separately if desired, and also the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I wouldn’t take upon me to spread his detraction; also that, having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I couldn’t fill their papers with private altercation, in that they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice.

Note the differentiation Franklin created, and the debate to that he was reacting. Meanwhile, on the opposite side, folks requiring Franklin publish something created a”freedom of the press” assert, also analogized the paper to some”stage-coach, where any one who would pay had a right to some location.”

Franklin refused the argument which the writer of a paper hadn’t any right to choose what to print, even if the consumer was prepared to cover publication. As a writer, he had responsibilities to the readers of this paper who had a particular expectation about the kinds of substance that would and wouldn’t be in his paper. It is most likely worth mentioning that Franklin had a rather broad notion of what had been a suitable line of public discussion. He did not object to arguments about controversial subjects of the day.  Franklin was also a serious polemicist. He enjoyed strong argument. His refusal was to slanderous or libelous composing. 

But notice that Franklin accepted the argument which whoever owns a printing press had an obligation to print even substances he believed represented an abuse of the press, yet separately from his paper, if asked. Presumably, he recognized some limits: He probably would have refused to print a struggle to duel or brawl, and he probably drew the line in porn. But he accepted the analogy involving a print media and a stagecoach. This analogy is quite much in the news lately.

Common Law Basics

Where does that story get us on the subject of their rights and obligations of major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to print? Common law was, generally, the point of departure of American law. (Jefferson’s attack on entail in Virginia promptly after penning the statute is an example of a substantial change from English precedent. However, such modifications were the exception.) And beneath common law you had a general right to use one’s home in discretion, serving or not serving clients as you picked. The main reason why taxation without representation was wrong followed the same logic, together. The authorities did not have a presumptive right to choose whatever it needed for what the King deemed to be the common good. To the contrary, the folks decided how much the King’s authorities would have each year to utilize.

Despite the fact that the general rule was that you had discretion in the use of someone’s house, there were exceptions. Certain businesses were known to be equally key and monopolistic–such as a stagecoach. Why was stagecoach different? Because the sort of company the stagecoach did was exceptional and essential. Arbitrarily to deprive individuals of use of this stagecoach was to deprive them of their freedom to travel. Adhering to Franklin’s company as printer, he would inform others that they were free to buy paper and handwrite several copies, but he comprehended that would be an unreasonable request. In other words, there are a few businesses that become, because of their scope and nature, general public, or at least quasi-public.

Our civil rights law treats more or less all businesses as carriers or as”public accommodations,” a parallel classification, when it regards the classes it protects. Now, government governs the cases where the owner of a small private social hall has the right to decide whom to function. The owners don’t have any general right to choose who may employ their hallway. (Previously, a place so big as Madison Square Garden might have had that responsibility, but maybe not a small place ). Additionally, our law regulates not only who’s served under the conditions, but in addition, it regulates the internal operations of the company involving firing and hiring, something outside the reach of the old common carrier principles. From that perspective, the overall right to use one’s property as one sees fit is much attenuated. 

These modifications have turned us away from the inherent logic of these previous rules–there is a general discretion in the use of someone’s property, such as the right to decide whom to serve and whom to employ, however there are limits to that right that fall upon some essential, monopolistic businesses. In those infrequent circumstances, the public element of the company was understood to be so important that private rights are diminished. Thus the Supreme Court in the 1920s refused a New York State regulation of the price of theater tickets charged by scalpers since there’s no overall requirement to have an inexpensive theater ticket. (By contrast, the Court might have permitted for limits on the discretion which whoever owns a massive theater had in determining who might purchase a ticket in the going price). Note the way in which the logic of this law connected with the kinds of exceptions to property rights which were and were not acceptable.

The Enormous Tech Crisis

What might this imply for our large social media platforms? A small internet forum or list-serve obviously should be open or shut as the folks running it need it to be. However, in cyberspace, a few platforms have gotten so big they are now quasi-public.  It could be the case these few must be classed as normal carriers. If that’s the case, then the default position with respect to the way they’re controlled reverses polarity. Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps a couple of other people, have created what’s now crucial, public space where political discussion, the lifeblood of both deliberative democracy, occurs.

Since deliberative democracy implies that the public is engaged in an freewheeling, open discussion of those topics, it’s crucial to guarantee the discussion actually is liberated within our public spaces, representing American public opinion as a whole.  That being the case, the bias in regulation should be toward ensuring free and open conversation in these fora. To be sure, there is still space for constraints. Presumably, stagecoaches might kick off passengers who exhibited particularly terrible behavior. However,”bad behavior” would need to have the sort of principles and limitations that Franklin applied to his own printing press, and not anyone he applied to his paper, or so the principles would be random, provided the public scope of the few fora in query.

Does the analogy use to social networking? Franklin was the writer of his paper. Therefore, he had been directly responsible for the content of this paper in a manner that negotiation platform operators aren’t. One might argue that their company is providing a space where clients take pleasure in the dialogue, cat videos, etc, which makes it more like Franklin’s paper. Hence the business version of any given social media platform might even require them to choose on which to include and who to exclude.  Some wish to speak only with individuals on the Left. Others might want to speak only with individuals on the Right, etc.. This rivalry would resemble the newspapers of the 19th century when partisan bias was a standard in the news industry.  But can that debate suit the biggest platforms? Epstein is not wrong to be unsure at this stage in time. The assumption that the current dominant position of Facebook and Twitter is not going to change might very well be confused. 

The first creation and achievement of Parler might indicate that the obstacles to entry aren’t so large as to justify such regulation. But recall that Parler was closed down when Amazon killed access to its own servers. And Apple booted Parler out of the app shop. Eventually, Parler discovered additional servers, however it took some time, and only after it changed the way that it policed content.

And that might indicate that the common carrier difficulty, if there is one, is located here. What was done to shut Parler was the equivalent of telling a person to obtain another printer to print their piece back in an age when printing presses were scarce. In other words, it might be that the location where the stagecoach/printing press analogy would apply is in the amount of their servers and networks –Verizon and others must permit access, as must the major server farmers so as to enable the sort of free and open conversation that deliberative democracy demands. Meanwhile, the Mark Zuckerberg’s and Jack Dorsey’s censorship reveals the decline, among an influential swath of topnotch American public opinion, of perception in free, open, and public discussion of controversial issues. However, the issue of these decline might be a distinct issue from the merits of handling social media platforms as common carriers.

It will take a close policy investigation to learn the way many moving bits ought to fit together. However, it doesn’t hurt to start with the broad principles which Franklin voiced: We have a general right to work with our personal home in the manner in which we see fit, but the public has the right to get essential services. It is the function of prudential judgment to choose how best to balance these energetic principles of freedom and obligation.