Utah lawmakers want to tax Facebook and other social media


The First Amendment does not allow the government to compel anyone to say anything.

(Andrew Harnik | AP photo)

In this April 11, 2018, photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy.

First they came for Mark Zuckerberg, and I did not speak out, because I am not the creator of a zillion-dollar enterprise that is a threat to the lives and mental health of millions and undermines democracy everywhere in the world.

But if members of the Utah Legislature go ahead with their plan to punish Facebook and other social media platforms for not carrying the kind of messages our lawmakers think they should, then I’m going to have no choice but to stick up for Zuckerberg. Before someone comes for me.

From Donald Trump on down (if it is possible to be beneath Trump), today’s political right natters on about the belief that Facebook, Twitter, etc., ban and block posts, tweets, messages, videos and accounts from those who lean conservative much more than they do to those who trend left.

There is research to suggest that such a complaint isn’t true. That conservative voices on social media far outnumber those of progressives. Though it is true that Trump being tossed off of Twitter was one of the most-noticed excommunications of all time.

A proposed answer to this supposed problem is legislation that would punish the social media tycoons for blocking right-wing messages. In its 2021 session, the Utah Legislature passed such a bill. It would have required each social media platform to lay out its moderation rules and give anyone who felt abused the right to sic the Utah Attorney General’s Office on the companies in search of fines of $1,000 per offense.

The bill was vetoed, for “technical reasons,” by Gov. Spencer Cox and there was general agreement that lawmakers might make another pass at the idea next year.

They shouldn’t.

One idea being tossed around the Utah Capitol now is that, if rules and civil penalties are unworkable, the state could go after the Instagrams and TikToks of the world by taxing whichever tech giants don’t behave. Taxing them, say, 150% of whatever money they make in Utah.

Which, on a global scale, probably isn’t very much. But it might set a dangerous precedent for officials in Florida, Texas and Russia to follow. Utah lawmakers say just floating the idea has drawn attention from tech lobbyists who didn’t seem to be very interested in our state before.

Leave it to Utah to figure out a way to make Facebook worse, by forcing it to present more lies to more people, doing more damage to democracy.

The idea also tears the First Amendment to shreds.

The Constitution guarantees that the government will generally not prevent a person or an institution for speaking his, her or its mind. (Unless you give away state secrets, slander someone or distribute child pornography.)

But Facebook is not the government. At least, not yet. The government has absolutely no business telling any social media platform, TV network, newspaper, supermarket bulletin board or semaphore-flag waiver that they have to say anything, and certainly not that they have to allow some third party to use their tools to say something.

The idea that government can make such a demand is what lawyers call “compelled speech.” And the U.S. Supreme Court — in rulings defending the right of people not to say the Pledge of Allegiance, for example — says that’s not allowed.

One would think the pro-business party would understand the first priority for any private enterprise is its financial duty to its owners and stockholders. If a tech giant, or midget, thinks that having its brand associated in any way with racism, anti-science propaganda or Donald Trump’s Big Lie is bad for the bottom line, it is clearly within that operation’s rights — if not a downright fiduciary obligation — to take it down.

Which brings us to the most important point about this controversy.

What do social media platforms go out of their way to ban? Evil stuff. White supremacy. Incitements to riot. Bogus claims about how elections are run or were stolen. Fake assertions about how global pandemics are a hoax, vaccines make spoons stick to your face and Trump will be back in the White House by Christmas.

What’s blocked is never ideas that used to be considered “conservative.” Low taxes. A strong national defense. Federalism. Judicial restraint. Free markets. You can tweet that stuff all day long and never run afoul of any platform’s terms of service.

So, if social platforms ban garbage, and what social platforms ban is conservative, then what passes for conservative thought these days is garbage.

Hey, I didn’t say it. Conservatives did.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, will not publish letters to the editor from people who claim to be emissaries from the planet Tralfamadore. No matter what the Utah Legislature says.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate



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