The masters of the universe in the dock over section 230

The CEOs of major tech companies will be in the hot seat Wednesday as Republican senators accuse their internet platforms of censoring conservative viewpoints and demand changes to the federal law that protects them from lawsuits.

From left, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Less than a week before Election Day, the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are set to face a grilling by Republican senators who accuse the tech giants of anti-conservative bias.

Threat to democracy? Tech CEOs in hot seat over liability shield

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc are testifying before a US Senate committee Wednesday.

Let the grilling begin.

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc are set to testify virtually before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday over whether to repeal a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields them from legal liability over content that users post on their platforms.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai are landing in the hot seat less than a week before the US presidential election, which has been rife with reports of online interference and disinformation. Republican lawmakers have also accused the social media platforms of suppressing conservative viewpoints.

Here’s what you need to know about the law that shields the tech giants – and the role it plays in freedom of speech and expression online.

Sooo … what’s this law and who wants to change it?

The law in question is the Communications Decency Act of 1996, but it’s one section of it – Section 230 to be precise – that some Republican and Democratic lawmakers would like to change.

What is it about Section 230 that’s so controversial?

That section states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Okay, what does that mean in plain English?

It means that social media giants can’t be held legally responsible for objectionable words, photos or videos that people post to their platforms.

And what does that mean in practice?

In practice, it means for example that Yelp can’t be sued by a restaurant that a disgruntled diner accused of having rats in a review, or that Twitter isn’t responsible for the tweet in which someone erroneously claimed to be the person who discovered Mars.

So absolutely anything goes? No matter how awful?

There are exceptions to what’s protected – such as posts that violate criminal laws around child pornography, for example, or copyright and intellectual property statutes.

So why did lawmakers give social media a free pass when the law was passed?

They didn’t. Social media didn’t exist when the law was passed in 1996. But bloggers did. The law was written largely to shield internet service providers from bloggers, and, in turn, bloggers from the people who comment on their sites or write guest posts.

I was born in 1996. I grew up, so why hasn’t the law?

Because technology evolves at a much faster rate than the law. When Twitter and Facebook came on the scene in the early 2000s, Section 230 extended to them as well. Of course, the amount of user-generated content online has grown exponentially since 1996, because even your parents are on Facebook now.

So why bother with testimony? Why not just change the law?

Because not everyone agrees it needs to be changed.

The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation says that Section 230 “creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish”. And tech companies argue that they can’t possibly police billions of posts by users around the world without curtailing some users’ freedoms.

How does Section 230 protect free speech? 

Those who want to keep the section intact argue that if big tech companies can be held legally responsible for every tweet, post and review that users write on their sites, they could choose to limit what users could publish on their platforms – which would be tantamount to censorship.

Section 230 also gives smaller websites the ability to post different viewpoints without risking being sued, say supporters.

But isn’t curbing free speech bad for democracy?

It is. But free speech is also exploited for nefarious purposes.  US intelligence agencies claim foreign governments including those of Russia, China and Iran have been actively using social media to spread disinformation and stoke fear during the 2020 US presidential election. And that is, well, bad for democracy.

But don’t the social media giants have people policing content?

Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s Google, which also owns video platform YouTube, have teams of people dedicated to taking down offensive content, like hate speech.

But critics argue that self-policing, especially where democratically-damaging disinformation is concerned, just isn’t cutting it.

For example…?


Recently, Twitter and Facebook came under scrutiny for taking down a New York Post story based on unverified emails that claimed that US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, agreed to introduce his father to a Ukrainian energy executive while he was in the White House.

Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey later said it was “wrong” to block URLs to the Post’s story without explaining to users why it had been done.

Did the story die?

The story actually ended up being widely shared after US President Donald Trump accused the platforms of “trying to protect Biden” when Twitter prevented users from sharing the story and Facebook attempted to limit its reach.

According to an Axios analysis of data from NewsWhip, a site that tracks stories’ engagement, the New York Post story received 2.59 million likes, comments and shares – more than double the next biggest story about either Trump or Biden that week. So neither outlet succeeded in containing its spread.

So what does Trump think of Section 230?

On May 28, Trump issued an executive order that attempted to limit the protections big tech companies enjoy under Section 230, which they immediately challenged in court. Trump’s executive order accused online platforms of “engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse” and censoring conservative voices.

And Biden?

Biden argued Section 230 “should be revoked” in an interview with The New York Times in January, saying that Facebook “is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”

Wow. Is it just political interference we’re worried about here?

Public health is also a concern. The secretary-general of the World Health Organization warned in September that “rumours, untruths and disinformation” spread by social media are hinderingthe global fight against COVID-19.

A rumour that drinking highly concentrated alcohol called methanol could kill the coronavirus, for example, was linked to the deaths of 800 people and the hospitalisations of 5,876 over the first three months of 2020, according to a study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Is this the only beef that lawmakers have with big tech?

Hardly. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accused tech giants of monopolising the market – driving wages down in the tech industry and stifling innovation.

And while many users view these platforms as “free” because they don’t charge a fee, it’s users’ data – and the ability to sell that data or make money off of its insights – that keeps them in business, raising privacy concerns.

So what happens next? 

Attempts to repeal Section 230 are among several ongoing battles that Alphabet Inc faces after the US Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company, accusing it of using Google’s search engine dominance to quash competition and thwart innovation.

Zuckerberg and Dorsey are also due back before Congress on November 17 to specifically face questions over their handling of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden after Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused them of censoring conservative viewpoints.


One thought on “The masters of the universe in the dock over section 230”

  1. That’s a YUGE MISTAKE!!!

    Brandon Smith of the Bob Livingston’s Personal Liberty newsletter has expanded on a previous note of mine from a few months ago, with a historical background perspective which legitimates my surmises:

    “Concerning big tech censorship of Conservative voices – I have a suggestion for how to quickly and relatively painlessly remedy this vexatious situation:

    Simply unilaterally revise their end-user licensing agreements, (EULAs) as the big tech firms themselves routinely do to their own users!

    Since all current CHARTERS OF INCORPORATION are granted with only a few CONDITIONAL CATEGORIES PROHIBITED from them “discriminating” against – mostly some inherent qualities like race, ethnicity, place of origin – and also others which are more suspect and optional like religion and ‘gender’ – right now neither Trump nor any other besmirched and banned, censored politician or public figure has any authority over “private companies!”

    But that could easily be changed to deny them business licenses if they act contrary to the First Amendment (and, for good measure, throw in all the other Constitutional Amendments so they ALL apply to any and all businesses who want to operate under Federal aegis and jurisdiction, too). That’s something that should have been already done long ago.

    Also, many corporations are already now routinely discriminating on the basis of race and gender. It’s flaunted in their mission statements, such as jobs advertised as “We particularly welcome applications from women and minorities.” That is workplace discrimination.

    Ditto for government-funded universities and colleges (which, as they do receive public funds, act as agents of the government anyways).

    Right now, duplicitous governments often engage in ‘Rights Laundering’ because by using private third party firms, the US government is able to circumvent the Rights it must uphold by using a proxy, which I think violates the spirit of the intention of the Constitution on the First Amendment.

    So, for example, imagine if the US government explicitly hired third party security contractors, and they beat up some guy. Replace ‘third party security contractors’ with, say ‘the military’ or ‘the police’ – surely if the law applies the second two, it should also apply to the first?

    No-one would deny that a third-party firm is acting on the US government’s behalf in that capacity. They’re paid by the US, directed by the US, and complete objectives for the US, so why are they exempt from law?

    Likewise, if the US finances Universities, and the Universities then go on to beat up some guy, or silence him, it’s as if the US government themselves had done it. It doesn’t matter if the University is ‘third-party’, the US government knew there was a risk of censorship and/or violence the moment they financed them. Given how often it occurs, it’d be impossible to claim otherwise.”


    To solve the social media censorship debacle, we need to examine the very roots of corporations as entities. First, corporations, as we know them today, are a relatively new phenomenon. Adam Smith described the concept of a corporation as a “joint stock company” in his treatise The Wealth Of Nations, and stood against them as a threat to free-market economics. He specifically outlined their history of monopoly and failure and criticized their habit of avoiding responsibility for mistakes and crimes.

    Joint stock companies were chartered by governments and given special protections from risk, as well as protection from civil litigation (lawsuits). But they were supposed to be temporary business entities, not perpetual business entities. The point was to allow for the creation of a joint stock company to finish a particular job, such as building a railroad, and once the job was finished, the company was dissolved and the government protections were no longer needed. Smith knew that if corporations were ever allowed to become permanent fixtures in an economy, they would result in disaster.

    This is exactly what happened in 1886 when the Supreme Court allowed companies like Southern Pacific Railroad to use the 14th Amendment, which was supposed to protect the constitutional rights of newly freed slaves, as a loophole to declare corporations as “legal persons” with all the protections of real persons. Not only that, but with limited liability, corporations actually became super-citizens with protections far beyond normal individuals. Corporations became the preeminent force in the world, and it was their relationship with governments that made this possible.

    This fact completely debunks today’s notion of what constitutes free markets. Corporations are not free market structures. They are, in fact, government chartered and government protected monopolies. They are socialist creations, not free market creations, and therefore they should not exist in a free market society.

    The alternative option was for businesses to form “partnerships,” which did not enjoy protection from government, limited liability or the ability to form monopolies. When the owners of a partnership committed a crime, they could be personally held liable for that crime. When a corporation commits a crime, only the company as a vaporous faceless entity can be punished. This is why it is very rare to see company CEOs face prosecution, no matter how egregious and catastrophic their actions.

    Today, certain corporations continue to enjoy government protections while also enjoying government welfare. Meaning, these companies get a legal shield while also getting the advantage of tax incentives and taxpayer dollars.

    For example, Google has long received huge tax breaks as well as rarely if ever being forced to pay for the massive bandwidth the company uses; it gets over 21 times more bandwidth than it actually pays for.

    The same rules apply to companies like Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, etc. All of them enjoy extensive tax breaks as well as cheap bandwidth that makes it impossible for small and medium-sized businesses to compete, even if they operate on a superior model or have superior ideas. Many times the corporations pay no taxes whatsoever while smaller businesses are crippled by overt payments.

    A true free market requires competition as a rule, but the current system deliberately crushes competition. Again, we live in a socialist framework, not a free market framework.

    Now that we understand the nature of big tech and what these companies actually are (creations of government), the debate on social media censorship changes. How? Take for example the fact that public universities in the U.S. are not allowed to interfere with free speech rights because many of them survive by consuming taxpayer dollars. They are public institutions, not private. Why then are we treating major corporations that survive on endless taxpayer infusions and incentives as if they are private? They are not — they are public structures and therefore should be subject to the same rules on free speech that universities are required to follow.

    Instead of challenging the corporate model in the Supreme Court, an easier option would be to simply take away all the tax incentives for any big tech companies that refuse to allow free speech on their platforms. If Google had to pay normal price for the bandwidth it uses, the corporation would either implode, or it would be forced to break apart into multiple smaller companies that would then compete with each other. More competition means lower prices for consumers. The threat of losing tax incentives would mean more large companies would refrain from censorship.

    Donald Trump as president could conceivably make this happen in America, but he will not, and neither will any other political officials. The partnership between government and corporations will continue, I believe, because there are other agendas at play here. The establishment wants the public to argue in favor of tech totalitarianism on one side and in favor of government totalitarianism on the other side. They aren’t going to allow any other solutions to enter the discussion.

    To confront the power dynamic between governments and major conglomerates is to confront one of the fundamental causes of corruption within our society, which is why it won’t be allowed.

    Read the rest, here ;

Comments are closed.