Section 230 Review: Right Topic, Wrong Administration

I think Senator Blumenthal summed it up about right, as he was quoted in this week in the Wall Street Journal:

“I’ve certainly been one of Congress’ loudest critics of Section 230, but I have no interest in being an agent of Bill Barr’s speech police.”

In the post I wrote right after Trump threw a hissy fit because Twitter fact-checked him, I said that I have been worried about the platform responsibility narrative becoming grossly distorted by the nature of this administration. It’s no surprise that the laissez-faire policies of the major platforms, with regard to content moderation, were set on a collision course with America’s new reality-bending administration.

As Trump’s unbridled contempt for facts, his tacit endorsements of hate groups, and his violations of core American principles morphed into official policy, it was inevitable that there would be a clash of conscience for at least some of Silicon Valley’s leaders and employees. They should have seen it coming but chose not to.

Instead, high on their own utopian, guardians-of-democracy rhetoric, and insulated by liability shields like 230, Big Tech refused even to consider how their grand experiment in speech absolutism, and the wisdom of crowds, might create a monster. So, when the beast finally broke out of the lab, they should hardly be surprised that their futile efforts to contain it would only make it angry.

Of course Trump is demanding platform neutrality. Neutral is exactly what the platforms kept saying they were for years. Silicon Valley wants the platform liability shields left just as they are. And in defense of that status quo, they have long claimed, and largely maintained, a policy of “neutrality” with regard to user uploaded content. But this assertion, already dubious, became both untenable and dicey for Big Tech operators, when the worst abuser of their community standards became the federal government itself.

But let’s be honest. Most Americans, left, right, and center, agreed that neutral was the right gear for Facebook and Twitter et al. Never mind that neutrality is not the aim of Section 230. That’s just a pesky little detail about the law itself. But for years, Big Tech used the protection of 230 to justify “neutrality” and to evangelize that policy as allegedly protecting our speech rights. So, the maddening irony of the moment is that Trump is merely insisting upon the internet that everyone naively said they wanted — and many still say they want, even as the Republic seems to hang by a thread most days. So, stick that in your bong and burble it for a while.

There is no other way to frame the so-called political party conversation now. Anyone with a basic working knowledge of American civics and history knows that the current administration is neither Republican nor conservative by any reasonable definition of either of those terms. When Trump and his flock complain about “censorship of conservative views,” online, what they are referring to is moderation of potentially hazardous lies, conspiracy theories, incitements of violence, and hate speech. If those modalities are truly part of the Republican party’s new brand, we’re going to have a civil war of some kind, at which point there will be no need to worry about nuanced legislation like Section 230.

But as I said before, that’s a problem the Republicans will have to work out for themselves. They’ll have to decide, and soon, whether they are all-in on this cult of galloping ignorance, incompetence, and cruelty. Meanwhile, I see legitimate conservatives tweeting several times a day—and quite often to criticize Trump for what he has done to their party. Bill Kristol’s tweets aren’t being taken down, and last I checked, he’s pretty damned conservative.

In the meantime, what will unfortunately be obscured by all this noise are the very serious reasons why reasonable people of good faith seek amendment to the Section 230 liability shield. These include people like attorney Carrie Goldberg, whose Brooklyn law firm defends real victims of online exploitation and severe harassment, while the platforms enabling those crimes (even intentionally) remain shielded by Section 230. This is the kind of policy conversation we are supposed to be having. And we were having it, until Trump got involved.

It is a tragic irony that whiny old men put Section 230 on the table for their whiny old man purposes, when so many of the real citizens seeking reform happen to be (as usual) vulnerable women. For instance, after years of reasoned debate on ways to address revenge porn online, Senator Hawley introduced an amended bill, dated today, that does nothing for people who have suffered, or may suffer, real harm from the misapplication of Section 230. Instead, the Hawley bill is merely a reaction to claims of “politically biased moderation,” which is a euphemism for removing the toxic, conspiracy-laden bullshit spread by the current president. Because that’s where we are now.

Because many (if not all) of these new, reactionary proposals for 230 revision will seek to punish Silicon Valley for moderating the worst of Trump (and that’s saying something), it seems unlikely that any such legislation will make it through this Congress before the end of the year. By that time, if there is any hope left for America, this national nightmare will end, and the historians can get to work on the Bruegel-inspired pop-up books describing this era.

I have yet to review the June 2020 DOJ report on Section 230, and because that review started before this topic floated all the way onto Trump’s radar, it may contain some reasonable recommendations that go beyond political theater. We’ll see. But now that the 230 conversation has been subsumed by Trump’s personal beef with Silicon Valley, it’s just another side show in the circus. It would be nice if one day, sober heads can resume this important conversation. Now, all we need are some sober heads.

See also: Civil rights groups call for ‘pause’ on Facebook ads.

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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