Tuesday, November 17, 2020 : By Paloma Chacon
The founders of our nation believed that the greatest threat to freedom would be a tyrannical government. However, what they could not foresee is that there would come a day when a force outside of government accumulated enough power to threaten Americans’ rights. This external force? A handful of Big Tech companies in Silicon Valley.
Big Tech has an immense amount of influence within our democratic processes, economic markets, and public square. These companies control what information we receive and from whom. And when it comes to moderating their platforms, they do not always play fair. This impacts our political discourse and shapes our viewpoints. Therefore, Congress has to act sooner rather than later to protect online speech.
The problem is, holding these companies accountable is a lot easier said than done. After all, it was Congress who opened up the floodgates on one of the biggest issues in a laundry list of Big Tech concerns: liability.
In 1996, the Communications Decency Act was passed, and with it, Congress granted technology companies the benefit of not being legally responsible for the content that third parties post on their sites. It also provided protections for those companies to moderate content as they see fit. At the time, this meant people could share ideas, access information, and have discussions freely. But since then, freedom of speech has not always been protected online.
One of the most noteworthy offenses occurred last month when the New York Post shared an article on social media revealing alleged corruption involving presidential contender Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Twitter locked the account of the New York Post so they couldn’t share this or any other articles and Facebook banned the article just weeks before the election in an attempt to moderate what the companies called “disinformation” — despite having no evidence to discredit the Post’s story.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., one of Big Tech’s most fierce adversaries, put the situation into perspective by saying that this controversy is about a lot more than a candidate’s corruption. This is about “whether a handful of corporate execs get to decide which newspapers are allowed to break big stories and which are censored.”
He is correct. Silicon Valley has gotten away with silencing individuals and the press to further what appears to be political ends during one of the most crucial times in our nation’s history. Democracy cannot afford for this behavior to continue unchecked — especially considering that Section 230 never intended to provide such sweeping power.
Since the 1990s, courts have interpreted Section 230 protections far beyond its originally intended scope. This has paved the way for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to censor content without consequence. The best solution to this issue is to narrow the immunity of these platforms, a proposal that even the Department of Justice has recently urged Congress to adopt.
On Wednesday, less than a week before Election Day, Section 230 came into question at a hearing on Capitol Hill featuring the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Not surprisingly, they all denied the allegations of political bias, despite significant evidence suggesting the contrary. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claimed that removing immunity will “remove speech from the Internet” and instead voiced support for “expansions” to Section 230.
Concerns that removing Section 230 altogether would be a disaster for free speech online and the ability of smaller tech startups to compete in the market are indeed valid. However, the current broad immunity gives Big Tech the ability to silence pretty much whoever they want — without any repercussions.
On the other hand, expansion would enable Big Tech to continue their censorship. That is why Congress must consider limitations and recognize how far Section 230 has already been expanded through broad interpretations by federal judges.
“Courts have…departed from the most natural reading of the text,” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently wrote in a statement, further validating the call to limit Big Tech’s tyranny.
Today, the Senate is set to hear from the leaders of Big Tech yet again, this time regarding how they moderate content and what role they have played in elections through censoring and “fact-checking” news outlets and social media users.
Looking forward, the Senate should move to pass legislation, such as the Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act, which would modify the scope of Section 230 and clarify when liability protections apply.
Another reasonable step in the right direction would be to pass the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, a bill authored by Sen. Hawley. This would empower Americans to sue technology companies for censoring political speech by requiring those companies to contractually bind themselves to their own terms of service and promise to act in good faith. If they don’t, they risk losing immunity from liability.
One thing that can’t happen is for the status quo to continue. To allow opinions and religious and political viewpoints to be censored based on the whims of a small group of unelected and unaccountable companies and their employees not only goes against the tenets of a free society and the free exchange of ideas, but it poses a real danger to the American form of government. Once speech becomes effectively suppressed, other civil liberties are likely to fall as well.