Supreme Court justice targets social media

Clarence Thomas calls for Facebook, Twitter, and Google to be regulated

US supreme court building

In a provocative legal opinion, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is calling for social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to be far more heavily regulated, much like public utilities.

No other justices joined Thomas’ opinion, and Supreme Court watchers say the question is whether any other justices will embrace his stance in the future. However, Thomas predicted the Supreme Court would soon have “no choice” but to address the issue.

The conservative justice’s opinion came Monday as he agreed with a Supreme Court ruling to dismiss a case concerning former President Trump’s use of Twitter.

Among the nine Supreme Court justices, Thomas is known for controversial and idiosyncratic legal opinions. This one comes as power players in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley continue to butt heads over social media’s future and how it should be regulated. 

Thomas previously called for reining in Section 230 immunity. Section 230 is a clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that offers companies broad protection from lawsuits over comments generated on their websites. It paved the way for the rise of large platforms like Facebook and other social media sites that thrive on user content.

In this latest legal opinion, Thomas criticized the concentration of so much power in the hands of so few owners at social media companies. He noted that Facebook has nearly three billion users, Google earned more than $180 billion last year, and Twitter has the power to remove anyone from its platform — “even the President of the United States.”

He argued that social media giants “provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech,” but they also put control “of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

“If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude,” Thomas wrote.

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He suggested that social media companies should be viewed as “common carriers,” like phone companies and railroads, that are subject to government regulations because of the essential services they provide to the public.

There is some political support for this idea on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle discuss regulating social media companies - although they give different reasons for wanting to do so. Republicans talk of fighting perceived anti-conservative bias, while Democrats are interested in holding companies liable for dangerous misinformation. 

However, social media companies and First Amendment experts argue that more government regulation won’t help and could even make matters worse. They also say rewriting the laws governing social media could change the internet in profound and unpredictable ways.

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