Apple has at last broken its silence on net neutrality. Last week the company sent a letterto the Federal Communications Commission endorsing “strong, enforceable open internet protections” and opposing the FCC’s planned deregulation. “Consumers must be allowed to access the lawful internet content, applications, and services of their choice,” wrote Cynthia C. Hogan, Apple’s vice president of public policy for the Americas. “Broadband providers should not block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against lawful websites and services.”
Apple’s comments are directly in line with the larger progressive narrative, which presents net neutrality as a bulwark against corporate censorship. If the FCC’s deregulation went through, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union worried in July, “corporations like Comcast , Verizon , and AT&T will have the power to distort the flow of data and the marketplace of ideas online.” Facebook ’s Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the FCC plan would let internet providers “block you from seeing certain content.” A public policy manager at Twitter said “free expression” would be threatened because cable companies could “block content they don’t like.”
One problem: No one has presented a single credible case of any major internet provider censoring web content based on political beliefs. But you know who does? The very companies calling for net neutrality. Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, PayPal and other tech firms are engaged in increasingly strict political censorship through vague and subjective prohibitions on “hate speech” and “fake news.”
Twitter outright banned the conservative provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Anthony Cumia. Although these men could be caustic online—Mr. Yiannopoulos has embraced the label “troll”—social-media companies also blocked controversial but sober political arguments. Twitter allows paying users to “promote” their tweets, but last month it refused posts from the Center for Immigration Studies, including one that argued “illegal immigrants are a large net fiscal drain.”
Facebook reportedly removed a post last year that merely argued “what Trump is trying to say is that Homeland Security can not differentiate which muslim is radical wanting to cause harm and which is a harmless refugee.” Google’s YouTube restricted access last year to dozens of videos from PragerU, a project of conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager, including lectures by prominent experts on subjects such as “Israel: The World’s Most Moral Army.” PayPal canceled service this summer to dozens of accounts labeled as “hate groups” by the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center. Apple Pay soon followed suit, and CEO Tim Cook announced his company would donate $1 million each to the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League.
Proponents of net neutrality say this comparison is apples and oranges. Since most people have only one or two options for high-speed internet, and because cable companies must invest billions of dollars in infrastructure, the argument is that competition won’t effectively check censorship. On the other hand, we’re told to think of “platform monopolies” like Facebook as competing newspapers that would be beaten in the marketplace if they began to censor.
But this ignores that social media is the textbook example of a service with “network effects.” The more users they have, the more valuable they become. The point of social media is communicating with others on social media. You could start a free-speech competitor to Facebook or Twitter, but it would not provide remotely the same service until it attracted hundreds of millions of users.
Moreover, social media companies present themselves as open forums. “Free expression is part of our company DNA,” the Twitter public policy manager wrote in July. “We are the platform that lets users see what’s happening and to see all sides.” The Supreme Court apparently agrees. In Packingham v. North Carolina, an opinion issued in June, the justices described social media as the “modern public square.”
For years, Facebook denied it was a media company in any sense of the term. Then in December, when it began restricting fake news, Mr. Zuckerberg claimed it was “not a traditional media company.” The legal difference here is important. Traditional media companies like newspapers can be held liable for the content they publish. But online platforms are given a safe harbor under law to avoid liability for their users’ content. The statute setting up this immunity explicitly states that Congress believes “the Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.”
This is not to say that social media companies should be subject to the First Amendment or “common carrier” regulations, as some have recently begun to advocate. But if Apple, Facebook and Google want to prevent big corporations from suppressing free speech online, then: physician heal thyself.
Mr. Epstein is an attorney and freelance writer.
Appeared in the September 6, 2017, print edition.