WASHINGTON, January 5, 2022 – The departure of the Republican senator from Kentucky Rand Paul of YouTube and the banning of the Republican Representative from Georgia Marjorie Taylor Greene from Twitter at the start of a new year rekindled a still-burning flame of what lawmakers will do about Section 230 protections for Big Tech.
Paul pulled out of the video-sharing platform on Monday after receiving two warnings on his channel for breaking the platform’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation, saying he is “[denying] my content at Big Tech… About half the audience leans right. If we took all of our messages to free trade points, we could cripple Big Tech in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, Greene has been permanently suspended from Twitter following repeated violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service. She has previously been chastised by both political opponents and allies for spreading fake news and disinformation/disinformation since her election in 2020. Her rapping record includes being accused of spreading conspiracy theories promoting white supremacy and anti-Semitism.
It was finally the spread of Misinformation about Covid-19 who permanently banned Greene from Twitter on Sunday. She had received at least three previous “strikes” related to Covid-19 misinformation, according to The New York Times. Greene received a fifth strike on Sunday, which resulted in his account being permanently suspended.
Just five days into the new year, Greene’s situation — and Paul’s quickly followed decision — has reignited the powder keg that is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects major tech platforms from any responsibility with regard to the publications of their users.
As it stands, Twitter is well within its rights to remove or suspend the accounts of anyone who violates its terms of service. The First Amendment’s right to free speech does not prevent a private company, such as Twitter, from enforcing its rules.
In response to his tweets, the Republican congressman from Texas Dan Crenshaw called Greene a “liar and an idiot”. Despite his comments, Crenshaw, like many conservative lawmakers, argued that social media companies have become an integral part of the public forum and therefore should not have the power to unilaterally ban or censor voices on their platforms.
Some states, like Texas and Florida, have gone so far as to ban companies from banning political figures. Although Florida’s bill was quickly stopped in court, that didn’t stop Texas from trying to enact similar laws (although they achieved similar results).
Crenshaw himself proposed federal amendments to Section 230 for any “interactive computer service” that generates $3 billion or more in annual revenue or has 300 million or more monthly users.
The bill – which is still being drafted and has no official designation – would allow users to sue social media platforms for the removal of legal content based on political opinions, gender, ethnicity and the race. It would also be illegal for these companies to remove any legal user-generated content from their website.
Under Crenshaw’s bill, a company like Facebook or Twitter could be forced to host any legal speech — objectionable or not — at risk of being sued. This includes overtly racist, sexist or xenophobic slurs and rhetoric. While a host may be morally opposed to being complicit in such comments, if they are not explicitly illegal, then they would be protected from takedown.
While Crenshaw would amend Section 230, other conservatives argued for its total repeal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, introduced Senate Bill 2972 that would do just that. If passed, the law will come into effect on the first day of 2024, with no replacement or protection in place to replace it.
Consequences of such legislation
This is a nightmare scenario for any business with an online presence that can host user-generated content. If a repeal bill were to pass with no replacement legislation in place, every online company would suddenly become directly responsible for all user content hosted on their platforms.
With the repeal of Section 230, websites would be treated as publishers by default. If users upload illegal content to a website, it would be as if the company were publishing the illegal content itself.
That would likely exacerbate the alleged censorship issue that Republicans are concerned about. The sheer volume of content generated on platforms such as Reddit and YouTube would be too massive for a team of human moderators to play a part in.
Companies would likely be forced to rely on heavier algorithms and bots to censor anything that could expose them to legal liability.
However, Republicans are not the only critics of Section 230. Democrats have also flirted with amending or abolishing Section 230, albeit for very different reasons.
Many Democrats believe Big Tech is using Section 230 to deflect responsibility, and that while they have protections, they won’t adjust their content moderation policies to mitigate allegedly dangerous or hateful speech posted online by democrats. users with real consequences.
Some Democrats have drafted bills that would grant extensive Section 230 exemptions. Some seek to crack down on online gun sales, others focus on spreading misinformation about Covid-19.
Some Democrats also introduced the Safe Tech Act, which would hold companies liable for failing to “remove, restrict access to or availability of, or prevent the dissemination of material that may cause irreparable harm.”
The current reality is that two sides are diametrically opposed on the issue of Section 230.
While Republicans believe there is unfair content moderation that disproportionately censors conservative voices, Democrats believe Big Tech is not doing enough to moderate their content and keep users safe.