Publisher or Platform: The Legality of Social Media


Monday, June 17, 2019

Social media bias and censorship have become a major point of debate in politics in recent times with mass flagging and more recently Carlos Maza of Vox attempting to get Steven Crowder banned on Youtube. Questions of legality come up often with people asking if companies are allowed to discriminate based on political ideology.

The answer is a bit complex, but it can all be summed up in one question. Are social media companies a publisher or a platform?

The two federal laws that social media companies are regulated under are 47 U.S. Code § 230 and 17 U.S. Code § 512. These define both publishers and platforms and lay out what they are legally allowed to censor and be held liable for.

Put simply, platforms cannot be held liable for what is on them, but they cannot censor speech within them. Think about a phone company. They cannot kick people off because they disagree with something said over the phone, but they are never held liable for illegal activity that was planned or carried out over the phone. Publishers are the opposite of this. They control the voices that are heard, but they can be held liable if something illegal is published on them. Think about The New York Times or even Lone Conservative.

So where do social media companies fit into this?

Social media companies call themselves platforms, where they allow voices from all backgrounds and political affiliations. They only step in when someone violates the law or their terms of service. This would be fine on a technical level, but it doesn’t work in practice.

Social media companies have very broad terms of service that are unevenly applied. There are plenty of examples of this. On Twitter, you can find noted anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan, who routinely calls Jews “termites,” but Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos for making fun of Leslie Jones’ role in 2016’s Ghostbusters. This is not an isolated example either. There are plenty of examples of conservatives being banned while liberals aren’t.

These things make Twitter a publisher. They are choosing the voices that can be heard based on political ideology, but they want the legal protections that come with being a platform. They can’t have it both ways. If they continue to say that they are a platform, then they have to allow every voice including voices that they don’t like.

With this, the media needs to stop criticizing social media companies for the people and things on their platforms. Just because something is on a platform doesn’t mean that the platform likes or endorses it just as I’m sure that phone companies don’t agree with everything that is said over the phone.

Social media companies advertise themselves as a place where all voices can be heard, no matter how big or small and regardless of political leanings. They say that, as long as you aren’t violating the law or terms of service, you can have a voice on their platform, but, in practice, this hasn’t happened.

Social media companies have been acting like publishers with the legal protections of platforms. They need to pick one and make it clear which they are.

Jeffery Johnson is currently a Senior in high school. He enjoys football, politics and most forms of media. He is working to become an opinion journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Jeffery Johnson

Bentonville High School

Jeffery Johnson is currently a Senior in high school. He enjoys football, politics and most forms of media. He is working to become an opinion journalist.

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