Commentary: The Social Media Purge Exposes Net Neutrality’s True Goal

by Bret Swanson


For nearly two decades, Silicon Valley made net neutrality its highest policy priority. Under the banner of a “free and open” internet, Google, Facebook, and Twitter sought regulations to ensure the uninterrupted flow of information by treating every bit equally. Or so they said.

Beginning last Friday night, these firms and others executed an unprecedented digital purge of the social media and video accounts of their political rivals. After several years of accelerating suspensions and suppressions, this time YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter permanently banned a number of high-profile conservatives and deplatformed thousands of others, at least temporarily. Many of these accounts had nothing to do with last Wednesday’s heinous events at the Capitol. Yet their histories are erased.

Shopify, Twitch, Reddit, and other online services and forums followed social media’s lead. Then something bigger happened: when app stores and cloud service providers joined the cascade by disconnecting Parler, a fast-growing competitor of Twitter, they opened an explosive new front in the information wars.

How’d we get here? Paradoxically, the smart refusal to adopt Silicon Valley’s strict net neutrality rules fueled their rise to astronomical power. With minimal regulation of U.S. networks, broadband and mobile firms invested nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, far more per capita than any nation. The resulting bandwidth explosion fueled the unprecedented success of smartphones, video streams, cloud computing, software-as-a-service, and a million apps. Now we’re in the middle of a $300-billion upgrade to 5G wireless.

Launched as an academic exercise in the early 2000s, the supposed rationale for strict net neutrality was to prevent internet service providers and mobile carriers from “blocking and throttling” content. Without a return to telephone-like common carriage regulation under Title II of the Communications Act, they said ISPs would discriminate and the magic of  the Internet would be lost.

With Silicon Valley and ISPs haggling over the price of carrying floods of new video traffic, the headline battle was economic. Ardent activists, however, consistently warned of a deeper, potentially apocalyptic, threat to democracy. ISPs, they said, might one day censor disfavored political speech.

The blocking and throttling never came to pass. Not political or otherwise.  Without net neutrality rules, ISPs still committed to fair treatment. And today the U.S. generates and consumes more Internet traffic than any nation, two to three times more, in fact, than many of our large peers.

Then a funny thing happened. Social media firms themselves began blocking and throttling at the content layer. In the name of rooting out “hate” and “misinformation,” they started suspending, demonetizing, deboosting, and shadowbanning. They cited terms of service and moderation principles. The rationales were usually vague, however, and their targets nearly always political enemies or free thinkers who complicated the official narrative. There were few standards, merely caprice.

In 2020, they accelerated moderation efforts, placing warning labels on supposedly false views on Covid-19 and climate, two of the most complex topics imaginable. Google suppressed three eminent epidemiologists over their Great Barrington Declaration, which called for focused protection of the elderly and vulnerable, while keeping businesses and schools open. There’s lots of evidence the trio, and the 53,000 physicians and public health scientists who signed the document, were right.

Does dangerous and illegal content exist? Yes. Is there a place for moderation? Of course. Has Section 230, the law which undergirds moderation, inspired Internet innovation? Yep. But is Section 230 perfect? I don’t think so. Can web and content platforms deliver differentiable, pro-consumer value by curating the user experience? Absolutely. Apple, for example, uses its app store to encourage security, privacy, family-friendliness, and high quality.

Big problems arise, however, when these firms claim universal standards and neutral terms of service, but then apply them opaquely or arbitrarily. Or even weaponize them against political opponents.

After both major app stores removed Parler on Friday, Amazon dealt a potentially fatal blow by giving it one day to vacate its AWS cloud servers. Other hardware and software venders, and even its lawyers, then fell in line with Big Tech and refused them service. Unsavory characters surely exist on Parler. But uniquely? No way. The Internet is full of people with awful, or merely wrong, ideas.

It is top-down mistakes which are the most destructive. Bad decisions from politicians or, say, dominant content platforms scale unpredictably to millions of people. Censorship is itself a dangerous top-down mistake. Free speech and pluralism, on the other hand, help us learn and grow. Viewpoint diversity is the crucial error-correcting code of civilization, and a big reason the Internet is history’s greatest generator of wealth and knowledge.

Entrepreneurs are building (and millions of users fleeing to) alternative outlets, apps, and channels. That’s the genius of the Internet – unlimited space to innovate and choose. Bitcoin and crypto communities are just one important new path to decentralized independence.

As freedom-seekers launch their own websites, servers, and streams, the aggressive censors will hunt them, demanding cancellation everywhere along the communications stack, eventually reaching the core of the network. And then we will have come full circle. They will demand ISPs block, throttle, and erase. And that government, under the guise of net neutrality, enforce their truth.

Facebook’s head of Instagram on Monday afternoon finally admitted it: “We’re not neutral.” Net neutrality was never about Internet freedom. It’s about information dominance.

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Bret Swanson is president of the technology research firm Entropy Economics and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 













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2 Thoughts to “Commentary: The Social Media Purge Exposes Net Neutrality’s True Goal”

  1. Zack

    I hope you realize that all of the negative side effects and social media censorship you mentioned. In this article happened AFTER trump repealed net neutrality (you know, shortly before the epstein story broke?). Also, the social media censorship started well before parler was shut down. I’m not sure if you used the internet while net neutrality was in effect, but you could go on YouTube and find detailed “alternative” (conspiracy) narratives almost immediately after any major event happened. Most were bullshit, but some were plausible, and a few even made a lot more sense than the mainstream media narrative.
    After the epstein story broke, nearly EVERY SINGLE youtube search result about epstein was from the mainstream news networks (including abc, which initially refused to cover the story and attempted to bury it altogether). Many of those stories mentioned all kinds of “crazy conspiracies” about epstein without explaining them, but the actual “conspiracies” they referred to were few and far between on youtube, and usually buried behind pages of mainstream cut and paste videos.
    Compare that to the massive amounts of intricate conspiracy videos that used to flood youtube within days (sometimes hours) of any major news event (mass shootings, celebrity deaths, natural disasters, etc).
    There were also A TON of anti trump AND anti biden stories and/ or pages being removed from social media during the 2020 primaries, even if the removed stories were factually accurate.
    Shortly after high speed internet became widely available in the us, mainstream news networks saw a HUGE decline in viewership as their viewers began switching to more independent online news sources. Gallup polls show that public trust of mainstream media and politicians were declining long before, but now people had new options that offered different perspectives, and ways to discuss and independently verify information from around the world for the average american.
    The small hanfull of corporations that effectively monopolize all american mainstream news media (largely thanks to bill clinton) accurately saw this as a threat, and decided to do something about it.
    In a perfect libertarian “free market,” the answer would be to try to understand why people are distrustful of them, and why they are switching to independent news, and then working to improve their “product” in ways that would bring viewership back to their networks.
    Instead, they decided to buy off politicians so that they could simply “erase” competition and regain their stranglehold on american news media.
    The repeal of net neutrality under trump is essentially an updated version of the telecommunications act under bill clinton.
    Both were designed to control media narratives. The money made by the mainstream media corporations is just a cherry on top.
    I would speculate that the immediate goal of repealing net neutrality was to ensure full narrative control of the epstein story because of the amount of high ranking businesspeople and politicians who were allegedly involved.
    Keep in mind, I am not saying that net neutrality solved every issue, but it DID allow for a more wide range of information and accessibility, and allowed independent news channels and small businesses a more equal online presence. Handing the keys to a tiny group of INSANELY rich media companies and making the internet into cable news 2.0 so that they can shut down their political and/or market competition is the exact opposite of supporting “free markets.”
    I agree with your statement that information control
    Is the primary objective. However, your conclusion that net neutrality is the culprit is severely misguided at best, and intentionally dishonest at worst.

  2. Masters of the Universe: All information is equal. Except when it’s not.