6 Ways Conservatives Betray Their First Principles with Online Child Safety Regulations

by on September 20, 2022 · 0 comments

I’ve been floating around in conservative policy circles for 30 years and I have spent much of that time covering media policy and child safety issues. My time in conservative circles began in 1992 with a 9-year stint at the Heritage Foundation, where I launched the organization’s policy efforts on media regulation, the Internet, and digital technology. Meanwhile, my work on child safety has spanned 4 think tanks, multiple blue ribbon child safety commissions, countless essays, dozens of filings and testimonies, and even a multi-edition book.

During this three-decade run, I’ve tried my hardest to find balanced ways of addressing some of the legitimate concerns that many conservatives have about kids, media content, and online safety issues. Raising kids is the hardest job in the world. My daughter and son are now off at college, but the last twenty years of helping them figure out how to navigate the world and all the challenges it poses was filled with difficulties. This was especially true because my daughter and son faced completely different challenges when it came to media content and online interactions. Simply put, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook when it comes to raising kids or addressing concerns about healthy media interactions.

Something Must Be Done!

My personal approach, as I summarized in my book on these issues, was to first and foremost do everything in my power to (a) keep an open mind about new media content and platforms, and (b) ensure an open line of ongoing communication with my kids about the issues they might be facing. Shutting down conversation or calling for others to come in and save the day were the worst two options, in my opinion. As I summarized in my book, “At the end of the day, there is simply no substitute for talking to our children in an open, loving, and understanding fashion about the realities of-this world, including the more distasteful bits.” This was my Parental Prime Directive, if you will. I just always wanted to make sure that my kids felt like they could talk to me about their issues, no matter how varied, horrible, or heart-breaking those problems might be.

When talking with other parents through the years, I’ve heard about their own unique concerns and struggles. Every family faces different challenges because no two kids or situations are alike. Moreover, the challenges can feel overwhelming in our modern world of information abundance, which is flush with ubiquitous communications and media options. Sometimes these parental frustrations can fester and grow into a sort of rage until you finally hear folks utter that famous phrase: Something must be done! And that “something” is often some sort of government regulation “for the children.”

Again, I get it. When all your best efforts to help or protect your kids don’t seem to work according to plan, it’s only natural to call for help. But there are very serious problems associated with calling on government for that help. When legislators and regulators are asked to play the role of National Nanny, it comes with all the same baggage that accompanies many other efforts by the government to intervene in our lives or control what people or organizations can say or do.

Conservative Contradictions

These are particularly sensitive issues for many conservatives, both because conservatives tend to have more heightened concerns about media content and online safety issues, and also because the steps they often recommend to address these issues can quickly come into conflict with their own first principles.

Let me run through six ways that support for media content controls and child safety regulations can sometimes run afoul of conservative principles.

1) It’s a rejection of personal responsibility

Again, I understand all too well how hard parenting can be. But that does not mean we should abdicate our parental responsibilities to the State. Conservatives have spent decades fighting government when it comes to broken schools and the supposed brainwashing many kids get in them. The rallying cry of conservatives has long been: Let us have a greater say in how we raise and educate our children because the State is failing us or betraying our values.

Thus, when conservatives suggest that the State should be making decisions for us as it pertains to anything the government says is a “child safety” issue, there is some serious cognitive dissonance going on there. In his humorous Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce jokingly defined responsibility as, “A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.” For parental responsibility to actually mean something, it has to be more than a “detachable burden” that we unload upon government.

2) It’s an embrace of the administrative state & arbitrary rule by unelected bureaucrats

Beyond the classroom, conservatives have long been concerned about the specter of massive administrative agencies and armies of unelected bureaucrats controlling our lives from the shadows. I’ve spent decades working with conservative organizations and scholars trying to get the administrative state under some control to scale back its enormous power, arbitrary edicts, and costly burdens. Over-criminalization has become such a problem that, according to the Heritage Foundation, “regulatory offenses… have proliferated to the point that, literally, nobody knows how many federal criminal regulations exist today.” We’re all criminals of some sort in the eyes of the modern regulatory state.

Yet, when conservatives advocate the expansion of the administrative state through new “online safety” regulations, they are just making the over-criminalization problem worse, including by treating our own children as guilty parties for simply trying to access the primary media platforms of their generation and interact with their friends there. For example, calls to ban all teens from social media until they’re 18 would result in the most massive “forbidden fruit” nightmare in American history, with every teen suddenly becoming a criminal actor and working together to tunnel around bans using the same sort of VPNs and evasion technologies people in China and other repressive nations use to get around over-bearing speech policies. [See: “Again, We Should Not Ban All Teens from Social Media”]

Needless to say, all this regulation and bureaucratic empowerment would have massive negative externalities for online freedom more generally as the era of “permissionless innovation” is replaced by a new age of permission-slip regulation.

3) It’s a rejection of the First Amendment & free speech rights

Conservatives have spent many decades pushing for greater First Amendment-based freedoms as it pertains to religious liberty and or organizational/corporate speech issues. Thus, when conservatives seek to undermine free speech principles and jurisprudence in the name of child safety, it could undo everything conservatives have been fighting to accomplish in those other contexts.

Conservatives are understandably upset with some social media platforms for being too over-zealous with certain types of speech takedowns or de-platformings. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and they should not be calling on Big Government to be imposing its own editorial judgments in place of private actors. [See: “The Great Deplatforming of 2021“ and “When It Comes to Fighting Social Media Bias, More Regulation Is Not the Answer.“]

4) It’s a rejection of property rights and freedom more generally

Related to the previous two points, conservatives have long upheld the sanctity of property rights in many different contexts. This includes the property rights that private establishments enjoy under the Constitution to generally decide how to structure their operations, who they will do business with, and how they will do so. Private organizations and religious institutions possess not only free speech rights in this regard, but property and contractual rights, too.

But when it comes to “child safety” mandates, some conservatives would toss all this out the window and undermine those rights, replacing them with burdensome regulatory mandates that tell private parties how to conduct their affairs. Again, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on here and it could have serious blowback for conservatives when the property / contractual rights of other people or organizations are undermined on similar grounds.

5) It’s an embrace of frivolous lawsuits & the trial lawyers that bring them

The last time I checked, trial lawyers were not exactly the most conservative-friendly constituency. For many decades, conservatives have looked to advance tort reform, limit junk science and frivolous lawsuits, and make sure that the courts don’t engage in excessive judicial activism.

Unfortunately, many of the child safety regulations being proposed today would empower the regulatory state and trial lawyers at the same time. Many of the bills being floated open the door to open-ended litigation and potentially punishing liability for private platforms — and not just against deep-pocketed “Big Tech” companies. The fact is, once conservatives open the litigation floodgates based on amorphous accusations of potential online safety harms, they will be empowering the tort bar (one of the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party, no less) to launch a legal jihad against any and every media platform out there. Good luck putting that genie back in the bottle once you unleash it.

6) It’s an embrace of the same moral panic arguments your parents leveled against you

How quickly we forget the accusations our own parents and others leveled against us as children. Remember when video games were going to make us a lost generation of murderous youth? Or when rap and rock-and-roll music were going to send us straight to hell? Today, those kids are all grown up and trying to tell us that they are fine but it’s this latest generation that is doomed. It’s just an endless generational cycle of moral panics. [See: “Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?” and “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics”] Today’s conservatives need to remember that they, too, were once kids and somehow muddled through to adulthood.

The “3-E” Approach Is the Better Answer

At this point, some of the people who’ve read this far are screaming at the screen: “So, are you saying we should just do nothing!?”

Absolutely not. But it is important that we consider less onerous and more practical ways to address these challenging issues without falling prey to Big Government gimmicks that would undermine other important principles. We should start by acknowledging that there are no easy fixes or silver-bullet solutions. The plain truth of the matter is that the best solutions here can seem messy and unsatisfying to many because they require enormous ongoing efforts to mentor and assist our kids at a far deeper level than some folks are comfortable with.

For example, it is just insanely uncomfortable to have to speak with your kids about online bullying or harassment, pornography, violence in movies and games, hate speech, and so on. And I haven’t even mentioned the hardest things to talk to kids about: The daily news of the real world: wars, violence, tragic accidents, famines, etc. Honestly, the hardest conversations I’ve had to have with my kids were those about school shootings. By comparison, many other discussions about online content and interactions were much easier. To the extent that we’re attempting to measure and address negative media affects, I firmly believe that there a few things in this world more horrifying to kids — or harder to talk with them about — than the first 10 minutes of what’s on cable news each hour of the day.

Regardless, whether we’re talking about the potential “harms” or mass media or online content, we cannot pretend there exists a simple solution to any of it. Here’s the better approach.

I recently authored a study for the American Enterprise Institute on, “Governing Emerging Technology in an Age of Policy Fragmentation and Disequilibrium.” It was my attempt to sketch out a flexible, pragmatic, bottom-up set of governance principles for modern technology platforms and issues. In that report, I noted how “[t]he First Amendment constitutes a particularly high barrier to the use of hard law in the United States,” and that court challenges were likely to continue to block many of the regulatory efforts being floated today, just as been the case countless times before in recent decades. Thus, we need to have backup approaches to online safety beyond one-size-fits-all regulatory Hail Mary passes.

I have described that backup plan as the “3-E” approach or “layered approach” to online safety:

  • Empowerment of parents: Parental controls cannot solve all the world’s problems. It’s better to view them as helpful speed bumps or emergency alerts for when things are going badly for your child. In the old days, we placed a lot of faith in filtering, and that still has a role along with other tools that help place some reasonable limits not only on content but also overall consumption. But the best types of parental empowerment are those that force conversations between parents and kids by allowing reasonable monitoring to happen that is scaled by age (as in more limits for younger kids until they are gradually relaxed over time). And other carrot-and-stick tools and approaches are incredibly useful in helping parents place smart limits on youth activity and overall consumption.
  • Education of youth: Education is the strategy with the most lasting impact for online safety. Education and digital literacy provide skills and wisdom that can last a lifetime. Specifically, education can help teach both kids (and adults!) how to behave in — or respond to — a wide variety of situations. Building resiliency and encouraging healthy interactions is the goal.
  • Enforcement of existing laws: There are many sensible and straightforward laws already in place that address more concrete types of harm and harassment. And we have lots of laws pertaining to fraud and unfair and deceptive practices. Sometimes these rules can be challenging (and time-consuming) to enforce, but they constitute an existing backstop that can handle most worst-case scenarios when other less-restrictive steps fall short. And we should certainly tap these existing remedies before advancing unworkable new regulatory regimes.

I noted in my AEI study that, between 2000 and 2010, six major online-safety task forces or blue-ribbon commissions were formed to study online-safety issues and consider what should be done to address them. Each of them recommended some variant of the “3-E” approach as they encouraged a variety of best practices, educational approaches, and technological-empowerment solutions to address various safety concerns. Self-regulatory codes, private content-rating systems, and a wide variety of different parental-control technologies all proliferated during this period. Many multi-stakeholder initiatives and other organizations were also formed to address governance issues collaboratively. There are countless groups doing important work on this front today, including my old friends at the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) among many others.

These organizations push for a layered approach to online safety and work closely with educators, child development experts, and other academics and activists to find workable solutions to new online safety challenges as they arise. Their work is never done, and at times it can feel overwhelming. But, again, it’s the nature of the task at hand. We all must work together to continuously devise new and better approaches to addressing these challenges, because they will be endless. But let’s please not expect that we can unload these responsibilities on government and expect regulators to somehow handle it for us.

Do the Ends Justify the Means When it Comes to Media & Content Control?

I could be wasting my breath here because I’ve been attempting to appeal to conservative principles that may be rapidly disappearing from the modern conservative movement. Donald Trump radically disrupted everything in American politics, but especially the Republican Party. Many so-called national conservatives now live by Trump’s central operating principle: The ends justify the means. The ends are “owning the libs” in any way possible. And “the libs” include not only anyone on the Left of the political spectrum, but even those individuals and institutions that Trumpian conservatives believe are “the enemy” and controlled by “liberal interests.” By their definition, this now includes virtually all large media and technology companies and platforms. Thus, when we turn to the means, it’s increasingly the case that just about anything goes — including many traditional conservative principles.

To see how far we’ve come, recall what President Ronald Reagan said 35 years ago when vetoing an effort to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. “History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and compe­tition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee,” he said. At the time, President Reagan was confronted with some of the same arguments we hear today about media being too biased or conservatives not getting a fair shake. But he called upon his fellow conservatives to reject the idea that Big Government was the solution to such problems.

Unfortunately, Mr. Trump and some of his most loyal followers and even some major conservative groups today have largely given up on this logic and instead embraced regulation. While Trumpian conservatives love to decry everyone they oppose as “communists,” ironically it is this same group that is embracing a sort of communications collectivism as it pertains to modern media control. In the Trumpian worldview, media and tech platforms are useful only to the extent they carry out the will of the party — or at least the man on top of it.

These national conservatives have made a horrible miscalculation. Feeling aggrieved by Big Tech “bias,” or just feeling overwhelmed by things they don’t like about online platforms, they’ve decided that two wrongs make a right. In reality, two political wrongs never make a right, but they almost always combine to make government a lot bigger and more powerful.

It’s an incredibly naïve gamble almost certainly destined to fail, but they should ask themselves what it means if it works. This endless ratcheting effect will result in comprehensive state control of most channels of communications and information dissemination. Is this a game that you really think you can play better than the Lefties?

I’ll close by returning to one of Reagan’s favorite jokes. He always used to say that, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” I would suggest that an even scarier version of that line would be, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you parent your kids.”

Don’t let it be you uttering that line.


Additional Reading

· Adam Thierer, “Again, We Should Not Ban All Teens from Social Media

· Adam Thierer, “Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?”

· Adam Thierer, “The Classical Liberal Approach to Digital Media Free Speech Issues

· Adam Thierer, “Confessions of a ‘Vidiot’: 50 Years of Video Games & Moral Panics

· Adam Thierer, “Left and right take aim at Big Tech — and the First Amendment

· Adam Thierer, “When It Comes to Fighting Social Media Bias, More Regulation Is Not the Answer

· Adam Thierer, “Ongoing Series: Moral Panics / Techno-Panics

· Adam Thierer, “No Goldilocks Formula for Content Moderation in Social Media or the Metaverse, But Algorithms Still Help

· Adam Thierer, “FCC’s O’Rielly on First Amendment & Fairness Doctrine Dangers

· Adam Thierer, “Conservatives & Common Carriage: Contradictions & Challenges

· Adam Thierer, “The Great Deplatforming of 2021

· Adam Thierer, “A Good Time to Re-Read Reagan’s Fairness Doctrine Veto

· Adam Thierer, “Sen. Hawley’s Radical, Paternalistic Plan to Remake the Internet

· Adam Thierer, “How Conservatives Came to Favor the Fairness Doctrine & Net Neutrality

· Adam Thierer, “Sen. Hawley’s Moral Panic Over Social Media

· Adam Thierer, “The White House Social Media Summit and the Return of ‘Regulation by Raised Eyebrow’

· Adam Thierer, “The Surprising Ideological Origins of Trump’s Communications Collectivism

· Adam Thierer, Parental Controls & Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods (2009).

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