America’s favorite right-wing conspiracy theorist is adding a new skill point to her Trolling of America role playing game: Section 230 expert.
Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was permanently suspended from her personal Twitter account earlier this year for claiming Covid-19 vaccines led to “extremely high amounts” of deaths, introduced new legislation this week seeking to abolish Section 230 and extract revenge on Big Tech in the process. The bill, called The 21st century FREE Speech Act, would attempt to kill Section 230 and instead assure access to online platforms by classifying them as common carriers. It’s also written partly in all caps, which means it’s extra serious.
As a reminder, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields platforms from liability for content posted by users, and also gives platforms the power to regulate and remove user content. Some refer to Section 230 as The First Amendment of the internet, though it’s come under fire in recent years by both the left and right of the political spectrum, sometimes for totally divergent reasons. Though there are a myriad of valid criticisms of Section 230’s current form, Greene’s new legislation by and large appears to fall in the, “Fuck Big Tech” personal vendetta category.
“For too long Big Tech oligarchs in Silicon Valley have silenced patriotic Americans for simply speaking the truth. The unholy union of the Silicon Valley Cartel and Communist Democrats must finally be broken,” Greene said in a statement, “Big Tech’s tyrannical control over the public square must be stopped and the right to speak must be restored.” In other statements, Greene accused tech companies like Twitter of enforcing their own moderation policies of engaging in, “corporate communism.”
Greene’s bill, co-authored with Tennessee Senator Bill Hagerty, aims to make social media companies akin to telecoms in the U.S. That would theoretically guarantee access to these platforms “to all users on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms free from public or private censorship of religious and political speech.” That means Twitter would be shackled from suspending flagrantly lying political accounts and would potentially be left with no real ability to curb lies before they amplify into rampant conspiracy theories.
The bill notably wouldn’t even gut all content moderation. If passed, the bill would call on tech platforms to develop “blocking and filtering technologies” to let parents restrict their children’s access to content they deemed offensive or inappropriate and would not hold companies liable for taking action on, “lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing,” or unlawful content. In other words, the bill masquerades as taking a maximalist position on FREE speech but is actually only really concerned with preserving the speech of specific political actors, (like Greene) who feel unfairly treated under the current system.
Greene’s sudden decision to actually try and legislate comes, of course, the same week another free speech barker, Elon Musk, moved forward to acquire Twitter, which he’s referred to as the internet’s “de-facto town square.” In typical Greene fashion, the congresswoman tweeted out support for Musk’s acquisition. “Prepare for blue check mark full scale meltdown after @elonmusk seals the deal and I should get my personal Twitter account restored,” Greene wrote.
“Elon Musk buying Twitter and talking about defending free speech has ramped up the Democrats’ efforts to clamp down on speech,” Greene said according to The Verge. “That made me realize, you know, that I need to introduce this now.”
While it’s easier to dunk on Greene and leave it there, this bill and others like it would still face issues even if they weren’t spearheaded by a QAnon supporting bigot. The concept of treating social media firms like telephone companies dates back years but it received a shot of adrenaline last year from supposedly sleepy Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who invoked the argument during a court case attempting to determine whether or not then President Donald Trump was legally allowed to block social media users.
Responding to a petition, Thomas laid out a case for government regulation of social media companies without violating the First Amendment under common carrier laws. Basically, under this categorization, the government would grant platforms certain legal immunities while also forcing them not to discriminate between content.
“The similarities between some digital platforms and common carriers or places of public accommodation may give legislators strong arguments for similarly regulating digital platforms,” Thomas wrote at the time.
That categorization of tech companies as common carriers is a, “half baked idea” at best, according to Wired’s Gilad Edelman. To make a long story short, Wired notes common carriers are required to act merely as a “conduit” of a good and maintain complete neutrality. That, Wired reports, is completely at odds with the entire point of Google, Facebook and Twitter, which exist fundamentally to give users more data on things they want and less of things they don’t.
“If you mean nondiscriminatory in a much narrower sense, like does Google’s algorithm include whether the webpage has a conservative or a liberal tint, or is based on anything else—gender, race, what have you—then, yeah, Google might say that they’re nondiscriminatory in these narrower senses,” former Federal Communications Commission Chief Technologist Scott Jordan told Wired. “But this doesn’t easily map onto the question of common carriage.”
Listen, conversations around reforming Section 230 are complicated and anyone telling you otherwise is likely a liar or Marjorie Taylor Greene wearing a latex mask.
In just the past few years, former President Donald Trump, Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, and even current President Joe Biden have all voiced support for significant reform to the 1996 rules many claim are insufficient to deal with the complexities of the modern internet age. Hell, even Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg pitched his own two cents on reforming Section 230, arguing liability protections should be conditional on a platform’s ability to implement “best practices” in combating misinformation. Shocker, that criteria would disproportionately benefit Zuckerberg’s companies.
And while most everyday people understandably couldn’t tell you exactly what Section 230 even does, those who do appear more split on the issue than statements from hand waving politicians would suggest. In a poll conducted last year by Pew Research, 56% of U.S. adults surveyed said they did not think people should be able to sue social media companies for comments that others post on their platforms, which gets at the crux of 230. Republicans were just 8 percentage points more likely to agree with that statement than Democrats. 49% of respondents, meanwhile, said they believed the ability to sue platforms could reduce inaccurate or misleading content while 40% said it would lead to less freedom of expression online.