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Reuters

Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren may disagree on many things, but on one point they converge: Both have lately called for a crackdown on Big Tech, the handful of social media and other sites that dominate the internet.

The same spirit of bipartisanship was on view at last week’s session of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee in Washington, where executives from Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon faced hours of hostile questioning from both Democrats and Republicans. They had plenty of material to work with, from Amazon’s use of data collected from third-party vendors to sell its own products in competition with them, to Facebook and Google’s use of data collected from individual users to target ads at them, and beyond.

Big Tech gets blamed for a lot of things these days. In part, that’s a function of the companies’ size and wealth, which makes them natural targets for popular resentment and those with ambitions of harnessing it – though that size and wealth is mostly a testament to their usefulness to consumers.

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But there are also a number of more legitimate concerns. These have less to do with their allegedly predatory business practices than the disturbing, and often harmful, content hosted on their sites: from simple disinformation or false news, to conspiracy theories and pseudo-science, to racist and sexist hate speech, to the whole poisonous stew of simplistic diatribes, mindless partisanship and vicious personal attacks that are the daily fare of social media.

The companies are caught in the middle. On the one hand, they are criticized for doing too little to edit the offensive or deceptive content their users post. On the other hand, they are criticized, especially on the right, for doing too much to edit the offensive and deceptive content their users post, in ways some conservatives find unfair.

The different critiques have their roots in different ideas of what social media is. Is Facebook or Twitter merely a platform for users to communicate with one another, rather like the telephone company? Or is it more in the nature of a publisher, with responsibility for what appears under its name? If the former, then it is neither the company’s nor the government’s business to regulate what is said on it. But if the latter, then it would be common to expect the proprietor to exercise a little editorial judgement, as distinct from government censorship.

Perhaps there is another description that fits better: gatekeeper. Until lately, access to the “public square,” the arena within which debate took place, was controlled by a number of private institutions – not only the news media, but book publishers and other opinion shapers. They collectively defined the boundaries of what “reasonable people could differ” on: that is, issues on which debate was not only permissible but encouraged, provided you were reasonable about it. Others were pushed to the margins, the realm of private handbills and street-corner ranters.

In those days to publish an opinion, at least with the expectation of reaching more than a handful of readers, you had to persuade someone, somewhere that it was worth publishing, as they in their turn would have to persuade someone to print it, and distribute it, and so on. Doubtless this system prevented some worthwhile opinions from reaching the public they deserved. But on the whole, it worked tolerably well, if for no other reason than because there was not one gatekeeper, but several. If one was unwilling to publish your work, you could always take your case to another.

Nowadays that world has all but disappeared. With the rise of social media, the traditional gatekeepers have been pushed aside: Everyone can be his own publisher. The distinction it was the gatekeepers’ job to enforce, between those issues on which reasonable people can differ and those on which they cannot, has come under sustained assault, from both directions.

On the one hand, the range of issues on which differing opinions are accepted as reasonable has narrowed perceptibly, particularly on questions of social justice; the gatekeepers have been replaced by the mob. On the other, the public square has been invaded by hordes of manifestly unreasonable people, previously confined to the lunatic fringe. One of them even became president.

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Why haven’t social media companies been able to fill the gatekeeper role? If there were many of them, perhaps they could. But given the quasi-monopoly Facebook and Twitter currently enjoy, they take on some of the attributes of the state, making their attempts at editing look like censorship. Hence, their initial reluctance to intervene, and hence the blowback when at last they did.

Perhaps this is the best reason to break up Big Tech: to give us back our choice of gatekeepers.

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