Facebook and the Future of Free Speech

Britain First is a far-right ultranationalist group” hostile to Muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom. They are active online with significant consequences for their leaders if not for British elections. The leaders of Britain First, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were incarcerated recently for distributing leaflets and posting online videos that reflected their extreme antipathy to Muslims. Fransen received a 36 week sentence, Golding 18 weeks. Britain First was banned from Twitter in late 2017. Now Facebook has taken down both the official Facebook page of the group and those of its two leaders.

Like many European nations, Great Britain has much more narrow protections for freedom of speech than the United States. The United States does not recognize a “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Great Britain criminalizes and sanctions such speech. This case is much more interesting, however, than this familiar distinction. The Britain First takedown offers a glimpse of the future of speech everywhere.

The leaders of Facebook did not just wake up on the wrong side of the bed and decide to take down Britain First’s page. Its official statement about the ban says from the start: “we are very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don’t like them.” In this case, the page violated Facebook’s Community Standards against speech “designed to stir up hatred against groups in our society.” The statement does not say which posts led to the ban but The Guardian reports they “included one comparing Muslim immigrants to animals, another labelling the group’s leaders ‘Islamophobic and proud,’ and videos created to incite hateful comments against Muslims.” I understand also that Facebook gave due notice to the group of their infractions. That seems plausible. Almost three months have passed since Twitter banned Britain First. Perhaps Facebook eventually concluded Britain First had no intention of complying with their rules.

You might think Facebook has violated the freedom of speech. But that’s not the case. The First Amendment states that Congress (and by extension, government at all levels) “…shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” If the United States government had banned an America First! website, the First Amendment would be relevant. But Facebook is not the government even though they must govern a platform for free speech. But that platform is owned by Facebook. They can govern it as they wish. Most likely they will govern it to maximize shareholder value.

Imagine public officials applied the First Amendment to Facebook. They would be required to offer their service to groups like Britain First regardless of its effects on other customers or returns to shareholders. In this hypothetical case, wouldn’t “free speech” lead to a taking of private property under the Fifth Amendment? Most, if not all, libertarians would agree that Facebook is well within its rights in this matter.

Some conservatives and Republicans are complaining that Facebook and Google enjoy monopolies that have given them control over online speech. They believe that these companies are imposing the views of their employees and excluding critics of the left from their platforms. Some conservatives say the tech companies should be taken over and governed as public utilities. They are calling for something like a Fairness Doctrine for online speech. That’s a bad idea, but the question remains whether Britain First has alternatives to Facebook.

They do. You need only search for Britain First and Gab to find the links. Indeed, Facebook appears to have a new Britain First official page.

Facebook faces some challenges here. They have values and rules that reflect both the commitments of their leaders and their business model. However, if their interpretation of acceptable speech becomes as narrow as the definitions now dominant at some universities, political (and perhaps business) troubles will follow. No one should welcome such troubles for such a successful enterprise. But such troubles can best be avoided by being “very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don’t like them” and taking steps to maximize the perceived legitimacy of their moderation decisions.

Everything I have said to this point assumes Facebook decided to ban Britain First for business or other reasons. But British Members of Parliament severely criticized Facebook late in 2017 for hosting extreme speech. Perhaps British officials successfully bullied Facebook into taking down the Britain First page. If so, we are getting a glimpse at an ugly future in which government cracks down on speech through private intermediaries thereby (in the United States) bypassing the protections offered by the First Amendment. This danger is the thorn in the rose of Internet speech.

In this case, I am skeptical that Facebook has given in to government threats. As noted, the takedown came three months after the official criticism. By waiting this long to act, Facebook appears to have withstood criticism from both the British government and private citizens.

Facebook’s actions suggest how to keep government out of political speech. Set and publicize clear standards for your platform and then enforce them fairly. When they are applied, state your reasoning publicly, so high profile cases can illustrate the precise contours of more general standards. To that I might add: engage your most persuasive critics thereafter and seek precedential coherence for your common law of content moderation.

Of course, none of this will matter unless the leadership of Facebook (and other tech companies) are willing to stand up to government bullies who seek a way around the First Amendment. Nothing is going to be more important in the days to come than making sure the governance of online speech is truly private.