The guy depicted above is Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican Senator representing Missouri, and he fundamentally does not understand how the internet works. How do we know this? Look no further than his fully ridiculous Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which seeks to overhaul a key feature of online communications, in the worst way and for the least-defensible reason.
For better or worse what makes much of the internet a viable model at all is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that online service providers are not “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It’s a legalese way to say that if you, the person reading this, decide to drop into the comments and libel someone or threaten the life of a public officer, Gizmodo isn’t held responsible for your poor decisions. (It goes without saying but please don’t do either of those things regardless.) As my colleague Dell Cameron has covered in some detail, a huge portion of the internet as we know it relies on this “sweetheart deal” as Hawley calls it. When it comes to failing to grasp the purpose of 230, Hawley and many of his fellow GOP lawmakers are repeat offenders.
Still, Hawley’s proposed legislation would turn this fundamental right for service providers into a provisional one.
“There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with,” Hawley said in a press release, “This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity, they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don’t discriminate.” Specifically, he calls for the Federal Trade Commission to audit tech companies that cross any of the following thresholds: 30 million US users, 300 million global users, or $500 million in global revenue.
For starters, Hawley does a poor job of describing just what it is he’s trying to fix. The bill itself defines his perceived censorship as when a “provider moderates information provided by other information content providers in a manner that is designed to negatively affect a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” Except that the growing “evidence” that’s led to so many farcical congressional hearings on platform bias has been wholly unconvincing. The highest profile suspensions handed down by Twitter over the past few years were not a result of those accounts’ political views but of specific actions—like threats, inciting violence, or other abuses—usually after giving those same accounts a lot of free passes. For instance: Jacob Wohl and the Krassenstein brothers, opposite sides of the grifter coin, were both banned not for spouting off unhinged bullshit about how great/horrible Donald Trump is, but because both of them were operating fake accounts on the side.
God does it suck to have to take Twitter’s side on this one. But let’s also take a moment to recall that while Facebook, YouTube, and the rest of the big social platforms aren’t held liable for threats and other nonsense thanks to section 230, they’re also not required to host any of it. Section 230 states that the internet as a whole offers “a forum for a true diversity of political discourse” but does not legally require individual websites to have the sort of political neutrality Hawley is suggesting.
It’s ridiculous on its face, but take even a few more minutes to consider the logistics of what Hawley is attempting and, well, it gets worse. Keep in mind that absolutely none of the big tech platforms use an all-human moderation team—the scale of content is too great to keep up with. And if reporting over the years has been any indicator, these platforms—even Facebook with its 15,000 human reviewers—are often blissfully unaware of some of the worst stuff users have uploaded. Each one of those companies is supposed to prove “by clear and convincing evidence that the provider does not (and, during the 4 2-year period preceding the date on which the provider submits the appli6 cation for certification, did not) moderate information provided by other 8 information content providers in a politically biased manner.” The FTC has barely over 1,000 employees, total.
So here’s the part that’s even worse than defending the equally sluggish and capricious moderations tendencies of Twitter: defending Josh Hawley, who, let me be clear, is a dumbass with bad ideas. Section 230 was written over two decades ago, before the internet coalesced into five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four. Tech platforms do have outsized power, both to police speech and in general. And Hawley is correct to criticize the moderation processes of these firms as being “shrouded in secrecy”—follow the headlines of the last decade or so and the only way anyone seems to learn how these all-consuming companies actually operate is through forcing some minor capitulation by catching them with their pants down. Legally, something needs to change to reflect the ubiquitous internet we live in now rather than the nascent one of 1996. Using 230 as a bargaining chip to demand vague “political neutrality” standards isn’t it.