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.
The issue of free speech online is heating up in the halls of government. President Trump and Republicans are now demanding the elimination of protections for Big Tech platforms determined to control what’s being said in cyberspace – but are they barking up the right tree?
Republicans Take Aim at Section 230
Just one day after news came out that Google was seeking to demonetize news sites ZeroHedge and The Federalist for content in their public comment threads, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) announced his plans to introduce a law that would prevent Silicon Valley from such editorial control over online speech. The legislation, titled the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, would be aimed at only large tech companies with significant leverage over internet content.
His law targets Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As LN‘s Joe Schaeffer explained:
“The Communications Decency Act’s Section 230 was intended to protect online services from lawsuits stemming from the published controversial speech written by others. But critics like Hawley assert that the granting of a wide legal invulnerability to these companies as they moderate content themselves has produced a climate in which individual users find their free speech arbitrarily stifled with no means of redress … Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a co-sponsor of Hawley’s proposed bill, says the legislation will rein in “vague” interpretations of Section 230 and ensure that the leading online platforms are not allowed to be arbiters of good and bad political speech.”
Trump, too, caught Section 230 in his crosshairs as part of his recent Executive Order On Preventing Online Censorship. The order came about after Twitter decided to start “fact-checking” his posts – something it is still doing, by the way, putting a “manipulated media” tag on a fake CNN video obviously intended as a joke. “Breaking News: Terrified todler [sic] runs from racist baby,” reads the “CNN” ticker to a soundtrack of sinister music, “Racist baby probably a Trump voter.” In fact, the footage is taken from an old report about two toddlers – one black, one white – being the best of friends. The pompous lack of self-awareness of such responses as journalist Tony Webster claiming Trump had published a “forged” video shows exactly how seriously news “fact-checking” should be taken these days.
As Eugene Gu, an MD who has a lawsuit against the president, tweeted: “Everyone could tell that the CNN chyron was fake and that it was satire. I mean what babies can vote lol … Do I think the Manipulated Media label is necessary in this case? No, not really. And do journalists really need to spend time ‘fact checking’ an obviously BS and satire chyron? Probably not.” Although, Gu appreciated the “manipulated media” label simply out of dislike for Trump, and as a next-level joke in itself. The spiraling descent into absurdity is surely entertaining, if not a little disturbing. As the old curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” When one considers the fact that Twitter’s fact-checking program is in its infancy, one wonders how far down the slippery slope it will go.
Is Trump’s Executive Order Valid?
As to whether Trump’s executive order will be implemented, there appears to be some doubt. The document requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to propose regulations, after a petition is filed requesting it to do so by the Secretary of Commerce and Attorney General, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). This is supposed to happen within 60 days of the order – so, in late July.
An open letter from Republican Sens. Rubio, Hawley, Kelly Loeffler, and Kevin Cramer to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asked, “that the FCC clearly define the framework under which technology firms, including social media companies, receive protections under Section 230.” Pai has so far declined to give much indication of his leanings on the issue.
The commission itself is split, it would seem. Commissioner Brendan Carr issued a statement welcoming the order, suggesting that Section 230 was no longer being used as originally intended, nor benefiting Americans’ free speech.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, however, threw into doubt that the FCC had a role to play in the matter. He stated that a change in the law is for Congress to deal with and accused Trump of intimidating “private parties” in the run-up to the election. “The first amendment allows social media companies to censor content freely in ways the government never could, and it prohibits the government from retaliating against them for that speech,” he said. “So much of what the president proposes here seems inconsistent with those core principles, making an FCC rulemaking even less desirable.”
Fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel added: “Social media can be frustrating, but turning the FCC into the President’s speech police is not the answer.”
While a fair amount of this may be partisan sniping, digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has also suggested that the FCC has no jurisdiction over social media companies:
“First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has no regulatory authority over the platforms the President wishes the agency to regulate. The FCC is a telecommunications/spectrum regulator and only the communications infrastructure industry (companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Frontier as well as airwaves) are subject to the agency’s regulatory authority. This is the position of both the current, Trump-appointed FCC Chair as well as the courts that have considered the question.”
Whether or not the President’s executive order is carried out to the letter, it has undoubtedly started a public debate that is not going away. Congress already seems to be taking up the mantle, and, as the National Law Review points out, altering Section 230 has some bipartisan support. Of course, some have said that when a change is endorsed on both sides of the aisle, that’s when you need to start worrying. It’s possible that revoking the protections of the law will reduce freedom of speech on the internet more than ever, as social media companies are made legally liable for all the content they allow.
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.