The economic juggernaut we call the internet has thrived principally thanks to a single U.S. law passed more than two decades ago—Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It states quite simply that website operators shall not be treated as the publishers of information posted by their users. To wit, Gizmodo cannot be held liable for some harebrained reader posting a defamatory remark in the comment section below.
Now imagine that starting tomorrow that wasn’t the case: Comments are canceled. There isn’t a company on Earth that would allow its users to say anything at all if the company could be dragged into court the next day and sued out of existence. Most of the top 10 most popular websites in the U.S.—Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, and YouTube among them—would quickly go bankrupt.
One U.S. senator, in particular, seems completely befuddled by this law. The concepts behind it have, for months, eluded him. Besides him being purposefully dishonest simply to lather up his conservative constituents, the only explanation is that he can’t read laws very well. For someone whose principal business is the writing of laws, that’s not too reassuring.
On Wednesday, Senator Josh Hawley once again laid into Twitter over a brief and apparently accidental suspension of an account espousing conservative views. And that’s fine; critics of Twitter’s moderation policies span the political spectrum, and it deserves to be criticized for any number of reasons. But as he’s done in the past, Hawley took advantage of the incident to spread misinformation regarding the purpose Section 230, a law that Republicans keep suggesting might need to be dismantled.
See, Twitter suspended the official account for the firm Unplanned, a faith-based, anti-abortion drama that debuted this weekend and raked in over $6 million nationwide. It centers on Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who quit her job in 2009 and is now a prominent voice of the American anti-abortion movement. (Controversially, it received an R-rating for, according to the MPAA, “some disturbing/bloody images.”)
The account, @UnplannedMovie, was restored in less than two hours. Not unusual, its follower count took a little longer to return to its former number. According to Slate, a Twitter spokesperson said Unplanned’s account was automatically suspended because the system believed the owner had been suspended for good reason in the past. “Twitter scans for evidence of ‘ban evasion’—accounts opened by people who have previously been booted from the platform,” the site reported, adding: “When an account is reinstated after a ban, the company said, it takes time for the follower count to stabilize; the follow-button glitch is a not-uncommon related issue.”
Hawley and fellow Senator Ted Cruz immediately seized upon the incident to lambaste Twitter over what they perceive as a liberal bias. “Big Tech’s attempted censorship of @UnplannedMovie is deeply troubling,” Cruz tweeted. “Why is the Left so afraid of people seeing this powerful story?”
In a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Hawley demanded that Twitter allow a third-party audit of its platform and release the results to the public. “I am rapidly losing confidence that Twitter is committed to the free speech principles that justify immunity under section 230,” he said.
In a press release Wednesday, Hawley’s office wrote that “Section 230 provides tech companies with immunity from liability for illegal content posted by third parties because they provide ‘a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.’”
Only none of that is true. Again, Hawley is either illiterate when it comes to reading laws or he’s simply being intentionally misleading.
Section 230 does not shield websites from liability because they are politically neutral or because they offer “a true diversity of political discourse.” If that were the case, the National Review, Fox News, the Daily Caller, and every right-leaning site offering online political commentary would be fucked; as would ThinkProgress, Splinter, Daily Kos, and every other progressive-leaning site—as would Gizmodo. The law simply has nothing whatsoever to do with politics.
To be fair, Section 230 does mention the phrase “true diversity of political discourse,” but only in reference to the broader internet itself. The actual text, written in 1996, states: “The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.” This is one of several “findings” by Congress, which are contained in a separate subsection of the law. Nowhere does the law even vaguely suggest this is a prerequisite or condition of any kind. And no one at a seventh-grade reading level would come to that conclusion. (They might, however, use that sentence to mislead voters into thinking it means something it does not.)
Pure and simple, the concept that every website should have to present both sides of a political argument, or face the possibility of being sued over its user-generated content, is fucking stupid. The very idea of it is antithetical to free speech. Hawley’s belief that government forcing websites to offer political counterarguments to every opinion is somehow emblematic of free speech is bafflingly preposterous. That is the very definition of censorship. And no law enforcing that would ever be upheld by the courts. Not in a million years.
Imagine the real-world equivalent: A bookstore that’s required to sell an equal number of left-wing books as ring-wing books—and any that failed to do that could be sued out of business over the content of the books it sold. Because it’s virtually impossible for a bookseller to know the contents of every book she sells, there would be no bookstores.
Sites like Twitter and Facebook frequently ban, suspend, and punish accounts espousing left-wing views. Fox News, according to a recent study, commands more engagement on Facebook than any other outlet. But whether lawmakers like Hawley and Cruz really believe that Big Tech is out to get them, the legislative solution they’re pitching is, at best, nonsensical. At worst, their plan threatens to undermine the foundation of the internet itself and poses a direct threat to free speech and the global economy on an unthinkable scale.
Either way, this is one of the most bizarre and incoherent narratives about the suppression of online speech ever conceived by a sitting member of Congress.
Senator Hawley has not responded to multiple requests for comment.