Presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) seems to think her argument for "breaking up" large tech companies like Amazon and Facebook was bolstered earlier in the week when Facebook temporarily censored some of her advertisements.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, her disingenuous reaction (and the pandering of a compliant press) highlights how we should not permit powerful elected government officials—of all people—to set the rules of behavior for online media platforms, no matter how big they are.
To summarize, Warren attempted to purchase advertising on Facebook to promote her campaign to break up big tech, including Facebook. Three of her advertisements contained one of Facebook's logos. Those ads (but not her others—that's important to note) were rejected temporarily because Facebook has rules against using their logos in advertisements. The reasoning behind this is extremely logical—to avoid the possibility of confusing Facebook users over the difference between ads and "official" messages from Facebook itself.
So, to be blunt here, Warren's campaign screwed up with its ad design. It's all their own stupid fault for including the logo. But, no, Warren is spinning this as proof that Facebook is too powerful because it's able to "shut down debate" about Facebook:
Curious why I think FB has too much power? Let's start with their ability to shut down a debate over whether FB has too much power. Thanks for restoring my posts. But I want a social media marketplace that isn't dominated by a single censor. #BreakUpBigTech https://t.co/UPS6dozOxn
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 11, 2019
Some observations here:
- They rejected a small selection (three) of several ads. The others ran.
- Each of the ads was limited in reach and cost less than $100, according to Politico.
- The company rejected the ads because Warren's campaign violated a rule put in place to help prevent people from getting scammed by fake ads posing as Facebook messages (presumably a good rule).
- There is a massive and healthy discussion all over the media landscape about whether Facebook is too powerful that does not apparently require Facebook to host $100 advertisements from Warren to facilitate. There is no monopoly here.
- Warren's plans to break up big tech appear to include importing over the European Union's proposal for a huge copyright enforcement regime that will lead to massive amounts of censorship online. If this enforcement system were brought over to the United States, amusingly enough, an image recognition pre-screening tool ordered to be put into place by the government itself would have probably caused Facebook to reject Warren's ad for trademark violations. Meaning, a government program Warren appears to support would have censored her own ad.
- Facebook has every constitutional right to reject ads that contain content it objects to or finds reprehensible or offensive. That wasn't why they rejected the ad temporarily, but regardless, nobody has a right to force Facebook to host their advertisements. (Somebody kindly tell this to Sen. Ted Cruz.)
So either Warren is being deliberately manipulative here (by downplaying that there was a reason for Facebook's decision and that it wasn't all of her advertisements) in order to bolster her argument, or she's too dense to understand the implications of her own arguments. Should The New York Times be required to run ads from President Donald Trump calling them "fake news" while using the newspaper's own logo?
In either case, this response actually emphasizes that Warren and her team lack either the ethical compass or the technological grasp of online platforms (and apparently trademarks as well) to be trusted to make any decisions at all about Facebook's business practices.
And yet, some media folks are lapping this up with a spoon, probably angered at how online platforms have disrupted the media's domination of advertising avenues. The "monopoly" is in the wrong people's hands! Here's a fascinating defense of Warren's overblown fears of "big tech" from Brian Feldman at New York Magazine arguing that the "accidental" removal is part of the problem:
Understanding this is the key to understanding why Big Tech is something to be concerned about. Even when it's assumed to be operating in good faith and attempting to be fair, Facebook still makes the wrong call. It does this many times every day. The threat of Big Tech is not some nefarious Big Brother scenario in which the Thought Police eradicate any dissent; it's that even when companies like Facebook are earnestly trying to do their jobs well, the scale at which they operate make its screw-ups and mistakes substantial.
But Facebook actually didn't make the "wrong call." They, in fact, decided to make an exception to their rule to pander to Warren. Note the invocation of "Big Brother" and "Thought Police" here. Those are terms to describe government policing of speech. Feldman presents this as an omnipresent fear but everybody seems to be oblivious to the fact that what Warren wants to do here is to intrude into these online platforms with the authority of government.
The "substantialness" of Facebook's mistakes absolutely pale in comparison to the disasters that occur when government officials screw up even when they have allegedly good intentions. People have been stuck in prison for decades due to a stupidly harsh drug war pushed by lawmakers and presidents who delusionally think this is going to save us all from addiction. We are still engaged in thoughtless, aimless military actions overseas that leave both American troops and foreign citizens dead because of powerful people like Warren "earnestly trying to do their jobs well."
I'll take Facebook's mistakes over a senator's anytime. That this is not the default position of everybody in the media in 2019 who has seen what has come of some of our most intrusive domestic and foreign policies is a mystery to me.
Bonus link: Reason's Peter Suderman explains how awful and economically illiterate Warren's tech plan is.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.