On Thursday, the White House is set to escalate its war on so-called social media censorship with a “wide-ranging” social media summit.
There’s just one small problem: major players such as Facebook and Google will be excluded. Leaving these stakeholders out will only make the conversation more lopsided, as self-styled free speech advocates attempt to make the case for nixing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 protects interactive websites from being held liable for the musings of their users. Curtailing Section 230 would make for a far worse digital experience for millions of internet users, enabling the very censorship that anti-Section 230 activists fear.
Instead of crippling the internet in a wave of regulation and liability, policymakers should strive for a freer, more open internet.
Seeing as how key social media companies weren’t invited to the upcoming “robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” it’s not difficult to see where the conversation will lead. Invited activists who have been banned from Twitter, such as Ali Alexander, are likely to argue that companies such as Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to block “objectionable” content if they are shielded from liability.
According to this popular line of argument, social media platforms get to have it both ways: they can micromanage content (similar to a news organization) but unlike, say, Fox News, they can’t be sued if a user posts something considered libelous.
But this alleged “privilege” extended to social media companies is in fact the norm for countless forum organizations that selectively give users an outlet to speak but are not responsible for the spoken or written misdeeds of participants.
Think of fledging comedians invited to perform at a comedy club. They know full well that, should they defame a celebrity or member of the audience, it is they who will be held liable and not the comedy club. Toastmasters International, which gives its participants a chance to overcome their fears of public speaking, depends on a similar understanding with members. Toastmasters chapters have widespread prerogative in choosing who gets to speak and when, yet everybody involved realizes that this control doesn’t relieve the speaker from responsibility for his or her words.
To remove liability protections would deal a harsh blow to all organizations involved and cause the clubs in question to exclude “risky” speakers that stimulate discussion and add flair to forum groups across the country.
Removing Section 230 protections for social media platforms would be even more cataclysmic. It would force Facebook and Twitter to adopt ever-harsher content moderation policies that have (briefly) sidelined educational content such as PragerU in the past. PragerU, which has relied on social media to advance its stellar educational videos and reach millions of conservative viewers, has gone to court to stop companies such as Google from politically filtering content.
The desired outcome, in which government intervention would force search engines and social media companies to remove potentially controversial comments, would only succeed in placing unprecedented power in the hands of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. There are plenty of shades of gray floating around on the interwebs, ranging from videos of fascists being punched in the face to photos of breastfeeding in public. This content all has political import, yet it may reasonably seen as a violation of any company’s decency standards and summarily blocked by the likes of Facebook or Twitter.
Similarly, politically robust debate, when it involves elected officials, may skirt the line of libel. It is inevitable that removing Section 230 protections will result in companies clamping down with blanket bans on expressing controversial political opinions.
Instead of giving bureaucrats veto power over such decisions, policymakers should give consumers the last word. If Facebook’s content moderation standards are in fact too harsh, users can and should flock to the myriad of other social media sites that exist. If internet giants truly felt that such market pressure didn’t exist, they would’ve never apologized for blocking PragerU in the first place or reversed course.
Balancing freedom and decency has been an age-old quandary for forums, whether they be 20th century social clubs or 21st century social media companies. But members, users, and consumers should continue to be trusted to hold institutions accountable. Social media summits come and go with requisite fiery polemics and calls to action. But the White House must embrace a free and open internet, and give all stakeholders a seat at the table in promulgating fair policy.
Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.