Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
A harsh spotlight has been shining on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act since Donald Trump painted a bullseye on it with a May executive order. The president accused Big Tech of censoring “opinions with which they disagree,” and urged changing the law, which currently provides legal immunity over material hosted on their platforms. Either platforms allow all speech or become liable for the content they host, the idea goes. While it’s doubtful the situation will pan out as Trump suggests, he joined a conversation that is only heating up.
The snippet of law has been the target of potshots as Republican lawmakers become increasingly irate over apparent political censorship in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Liberty Nation‘s James Fite pinpointed the two major complaints leveled by Congress against tech companies, as seen in a July 29 House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing, an event in which the Big Four Silicon Valley CEOs were grilled via conference call. Democrats alleged unfair business practices resulting in a monopoly, while Republicans objected to bias against right-leaning messages. The remedy, as the GOP seems to view it, is to get rid of, or alter, Section 230.
Stop the Censorship – or Start It?
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and other Republicans took aim at the regulation in the recent Stop the Censorship Act of 2020, issuing a press release which said:
“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (Section 230) affords Big Tech immunity from liability for third-party content. Section 230’s “Good Samaritan” provision provides immunity for the removal of users and content, and has been abused by Big Tech to censor competition and lawful speech.”
The bill makes a few phrasing changes to the law. It allows online providers to remove obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, or harassing messages. However, it would stop the outright removal of what is currently labeled “otherwise objectionable content,” changing it to “unlawful” content and that which would “promote violence or terrorism.”
It would also allow internet users to block material of their own accord – the tech companies couldn’t remove it, but individuals who object to the information could remove it from their own field of vision, presumably via filters or other blocks.
The bill failed to make much of a splash in the media, with one of the few serious examinations being that published by Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman about a 2019 version of the bill. His blog post provides insight into the key criticisms this and similar proposals face. The argument against such a move is in large part based on the idea that it is itself a form of censorship, limiting tech companies’ ability to enforce their own editorial standards.
Goldman rather contemptuously wrote, “At this point, many ‘conservatives’ favor government regulation of the editorial practices of Internet companies. As a result, proposals coming from DC ‘conservatives’ that reference ‘censorship’ in their titles almost certainly are designed to embrace, not prevent, censorship.”
He added that the bill “seeks to protect Constitutionally protected speech from editorial filtering. But it advances that goal at the expense of the Internet services’ editorial discretion, so it also seeks to restrict the constitutionally protected speech of Internet services.”
The common counterargument is that tech companies have no right to enforce editorial decisions based on political stance, as this is the realm of “publishers” – which Section 230 makes clear these providers are not. As stated by LN‘s Leesa K. Donner:
“In layman’s terms, this rule means that if the digital platforms act as simple forums for people to connect and speak their minds, that’s one thing. But the minute they endeavor to regulate that speech, whether it be banning it or promoting it, these businesses could be considered publishers. That’s a real dilemma because publishing companies operate by a different set of rules. One of the primary distinctions is that publishers can be sued by individuals …”
In the end, Goldman views this and similar laws as nothing more than performance art, based on spurious claims. In fact, various opponents to similar laws suggest that Republican accusations of censorship are a “conspiracy theory” based on imagined slights.
Gosar points out that the updated submission is in line with recent Department of Justice recommendations for changes in the law.
Hawley Gets Busy
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has been hounding Silicon Valley on a host of issues for some time now.
He’s been an outspoken critic of China’s climbing of the tech ladder, pre-empting Trump’s recent allusions toward banning TikTok with a bill to disallow the Chinese app on federal devices, and urging the Department of Justice to investigate.
In June 2019, Hawley put forth his Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act. That bill would prohibit “a large social media company from moderating information on its platform from a politically biased standpoint.” It would require a provider to gain certification from the Federal Trade Commission in hearings open to the public, to ensure they are unbiased.
This proposal, too, has received its fair share of criticism, also based on the idea that to regulate Big Tech is to stifle its own speech and hand too much power to the government. “In reality, it’s a bill that would inject the federal government directly into the private social-media business and grant it enormous power over social-media content. It would enable public censorship in the name of limiting private control,” wrote David French in the National Review.
The Missouri senator was not deterred, a year later continuing to shoot at Section 230 from every angle he can apparently think of. He, along with other Republicans, in July introduced the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, which would allow Americans to sue tech companies.
Then there is his Behavioral Advertising Decisions Are Downgrading Services (BAD ADS) Act, which aims to remove Section 230 immunity from companies that “display manipulative, behavioral ads or provide data to be used for them.” Behavioral ads are those tailored to an individual based on their personal habits and browser data, search terms, or location information.
Ultimately the issue boils down to a matter of who has the greater right to speak; Big Tech providers or the individuals who use their services. Then again, the matter is only relevant if one thinks there is actually any online bias or censorship taking place. Perhaps now is a good time to follow in the footsteps of LN‘s Pennel Bird, who, reporting last week on social media bans of Coronavirus narrative dissenters, quoted the Bard: “The truth will out.”
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.