While Congress was grilling some Big Tech CEOs this week, Democratic leaders were busy in the background, working on proposals to change how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is written. Sadly, there are plenty of people on both sides of the ideological divide who have become so angered by the actions of Twitter and Facebook, along with the other social media heavyweights, that support for this sort of action seems to be growing. But what House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and his cronies are planning to do won’t stop some of the worst abuses of Jack Dorsey and company. Instead, it will open the door to unofficial censorship of anyone with insufficiently woke views and could lead to endless lawsuits, not just against the social media platforms, but all publishers of online content. (Axios)
The question isn’t whether to regulate tech companies, but how, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) tells Axios’ Margaret Harding McGill.
Why it matters: Democrats, empowered in Congress and enraged by misinformation over vaccines and the election, agree it’s time to legislate on tech policy, including updating the key law that shields them from liability from user-generated content. The path to passing a bill is a little clearer, and there have been signs that the largest tech platforms are ready to embrace some changes.
Driving the news: Pallone said he wants to take aim at online platforms’ financial incentives to amplify misinformation and extreme content.
Pallone is cleverly framing the discussion by talking about “the more outrageous and extremist” content (his words) and how Facebook and Twitter are “profiting” off of it because that’s the sort of content that drives a lot of clicks. It’s a given that flashy, inflammatory headlines draw eyeballs, and if the Democrats make it sound like the only people being punished are billionaires like Zuckerberg and Dorsey, it’s easy to get people to go along with opening the door to lawsuits and regulations.
We need to be keeping two things in mind here. First, the Communications Decency Act doesn’t only apply to social media platforms. In fact, the original legislation was written long before those platforms were even a twinkle in the eyes of their creators. Those rules apply to any web outlet where news and opinions are published and, more to the point, any site that allows comments from the public.
The bigger issue, however, is that opening the door to lawsuits and restrictions involves a system where somebody will have to decide what qualifies as “outrageous and extremist” content. Even labeling something as “misinformation” opens the door to rampant abuse. We’ve already seen far too many examples of Facebook and Twitter blocking content or suspending/banning users (almost entirely conservative voices) for posting observations deemed to be “harmful.” This is frequently done under the guise of supposedly passing bad information about the pandemic, but those patterns of behavior carry over to discussions of racism, social inequality, and nearly every other divisive topic you’d care to name.
People have been suspended from Twitter for suggesting that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, despite the fact that the former head of the CDC recently said he believes that to be the case also. Twitter suspended the account of the New York Post for weeks because they linked to one of their own stories about Hunter Biden that wound up being 100% vindicated. (Dorsey told Congress this week that the decision was “a mistake” but wouldn’t say who made the decision or what process was used to evaluate the content.) Other examples abound.
The point is that there will be no clear definitions as to what speech is allowed and what is “dangerous, extreme misinformation” other than the ones generated by the publishers. And with Section 230 amended in the fashion that the Democrats are proposing, liberals will soon be trolling the comment sections of websites like the one you are reading now. As soon as they find someone citing the medical study from Denmark saying that cloth face masks are ineffective in protecting uninfected people from contracting the virus, they will be able to launch a lawsuit against our company for allowing “dangerous misinformation” to appear on our site. (Despite the fact that the results of that study have never been refuted.)
These lawsuits will (or at least should) eventually fail on First Amendment grounds, but too many of these frivolous attacks will run up massive legal bills that will put some smaller publishers out of business. So please don’t be too quick to support Pallone’s proposal just because you think it will punish Facebook and Twitter. There’s a Trojan horse hiding in this plan and the Democrats are fully aware of it. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.