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[The] Breakup Speech: Can Antitrust Fix the Relationship Between Platforms and Free Speech Values?

Chilson, Neil; Mattox, Casey

"The ability of a concentrated few to shape the speech environment has waxed and waned throughout history. The printing press exploded elite control over ideas, leading to revolution, conflict, and an unprecedented sustained increase in living standards (sometimes called “the Great Enrichment”). More recently, powerful publishers and broadcasters lost their gatekeeper role in the eruption of communications facilitated by internet platforms. As a result, the average person today possesses an ability and freedom to speak to a broad audience that is unparalleled in human history.

This freedom can and has been abused, and thus platforms face political and market pressure to control the speech on their services. People across the political spectrum accuse platforms of fostering hate, censoring speech, and harming journalism. Based on largely instinctual assessments that platforms face little competitive pressure on how they govern speech, some have sought to expand antitrust enforcers’ mandate beyond competition values.

Many question whether and to what degree large platforms are guilty of the accused harms. We touch on this debate. But our primary method is to assume such harms are serious and examine the proposed solutions.

Our conclusion: If private platform power over the speech environment is a problem, antitrust is the wrong solution. Competition can promote consumers’ free speech preferences. However, increasing the number of competitors will not help because current free speech concerns are not caused by a lack of competition. In fact, unleashing antitrust regulators to pursue non-competition-related goals would threaten free speech values. Removing key constraints on antitrust’s powerful tools—tools with a history of abusive and arbitrary use—would weaken antitrust’s ability to protect the competitive process and increase the risk that governments and others will abuse such tools to interfere with speech."

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