Social Media Platforms’ Many Functions: Hosting, Recommendation, Conversation, and More
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Of course, like many other businesses, social media platforms (and other Big Tech infrastructure providers) have multiple functions.
- So far, I’ve focused on their hosting function—their letting a user post material on what is seen as the user’s own page, and delivering that material to people who deliberately visit that page or subscribe to its feed in reverse chronological order mode. Some Big Tech companies are entirely or almost entirely about the hosting function (consider WordPress, or Amazon Web Services). Domain name registrars, such as GoDaddy, also offer something close to the hosting function, though they don’t do the hosting themselves.
- Social media platforms also often provide what I call the “recommendation function,” for instance when they include a certain account or post in a news feed that they curate, or in a list of “trending” or “recommended” or “you might enjoy this list” items. Other Big Tech features, such as Google’s search or Google News, are almost entirely about this function.
- And social media platforms also often provide what I call the “conversation function,” when they allow users to comment on each other’s posts.
It seems to me that the case for common carrier status is strongest (whether or not one thinks it’s strong enough) as to the hosting function, which is close to what phone companies and UPS and FedEx do. The decision to remove an account or delete a post, and thus to interfere with the author’s communication to those who deliberately subscribe to the account, is similar to a phone company’s decision to cancel a phone line. It seems at least potentially reasonable to impose a common carrier requirement that prevents such decisions.
And this is especially so when the hosted material is made visible just to people who seek it out, for instance when Twitter lets people’s posts be seen by their followers, or Facebook lets people visit someone’s web page, or YouTube lets people watch a video, or WordPress lets people visit a WordPress-hosted blog. I may think lots of material out there is “terrible,” but that needn’t interfere with my ability to visit good content, just as the existence of terrible books doesn’t keep me from reading good ones. (Indeed, Twitter, unlike Facebook, allows porn feeds, though it labels them “sensitive material.” To my knowledge, Twitter users who don’t want to see the porn generally don’t run across it by accident, and they don’t find the utility of Twitter diminished by the fact that some other people are using Twitter to view porn.)
On the other hand, the case for editorial discretion—including for a First Amendment right to exercise such discretion, which I discuss in the next Part—is strongest as to the recommendation function, which is close to what newspapers, broadcasters, and bookstores do.
What about platforms’ exercising their conversation function—for instance, blocking certain comments posted to others’ pages, or blocking users because they had repeatedly posted comments that violat
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