Big Tech's Tightening Grip on Internet Speech


  • Gregory M. Dickinson



Online platforms have completely transformed American social life. They have democratized publication, overthrown old gatekeepers, and given ordinary Americans a fresh voice in politics. But the system is beginning to falter. Control over online speech lies in the hands of a select few—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—who moderate content for the entire nation. It is an impossible task. Americans cannot even agree among themselves what speech should be permitted. And, more importantly, platforms have their own interests at stake: Fringe theories and ugly name-calling drive away users. Moderation is good for business. But platform beautification has consequences for society’s unpopular members, whose unsightly voices are silenced in the process. With control over online speech so centralized, online outcasts are left with few avenues for expression.

Concentrated private control over important resources is an old problem. Last century, for example, saw the rise of railroads and telephone networks. To ensure access, such entities are treated as common carriers and required to provide equal service to all comers. Perhaps the same should be true for social media. This Essay responds to recent calls from Congress, the Supreme Court, and academia arguing that, like common carriers, online platforms should be required to carry all lawful content. The Essay studies users’ and platforms’ competing expressive interests, analyzes problematic trends in platforms’ censorship practices, and explores the costs of common-carrier regulation before ultimatelyproposing market expansion and segmentation as an alternate pathway to avoid the economic and social costs of common-carrier regulation.