By: Justin Haskins – thehill.com – June 2, 2020
On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order demanding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) clarify a historic federal law so that tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter can’t silence or limit reasonable political and religious opinions on their platforms. It could end up being remembered as the most impactful and important executive order of Trump’s entire presidency.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows websites to escape liability for much of the content posted by users on their platforms. For example, if a user posts a series of defamatory remarks on Twitter, Twitter cannot be held liable for hosting and disseminating those remarks because of Section 230.
The intent of Section 230 is to help internet companies like Twitter and others build expansive platforms that would otherwise be impossible if they were held responsible for everything posted by users on their site.
This vital law has probably done more to shape the internet than any other law or regulation imposed by any government on the planet. Without Section 230, many of the internet’s most popular and lucrative websites – including Facebook, Google and YouTube – simply couldn’t exist in their current forms.
The protections in Section 230 do not apply to every kind of website, however. Websites that act as publishers, and many do, are held liable for much of the material on their site. For example, the New York Times can’t post a series of overtly false articles claiming Nancy Pelosi is an alien from outer space, because it’s a publisher and is responsible for the content it posts to its site.
What separates Twitter, Facebook and other popular platforms from sites like the New York Times is that social media sites and search engines aren’t publishers in the same way that a traditional newspaper is. They are open platforms that are meant to give users of all kinds of political, religious and social opinions a space for open communication.
That doesn’t mean platforms must allow their users to post literally anything they want. Illegal content, such as child pornography, must be prohibited, and reasonable community standards for communication can also be formulated so that users aren’t, for example, allowed to repeatedly harass or threaten each other.
Over the past decade, social media platforms have used the “community standards” provision as a loophole to limit or prohibit speech and users with whom they do not agree. And although users across the political spectrum have complained in the past about platforms’ policies, there’s no question that libertarian and conservative users have been most concerned and critical of the growing power of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which have repeatedly been caught banning and limiting the speech of supporters of limited government, free markets and Christian moral values.
This is where President Trump’s executive order comes into play. According to the order, platforms that engage in censorship of reasonable speech – meaning speech that isn’t overtly violent, pornographic, etc. – will not be permitted to continue enjoying the liability protections granted to them by Section 230, which was always intended to provide these protections only to truly fair platforms acting in good faith.
President Trump’s executive order is incredibly important because it’s the only way to ensure that these platforms act in line with federal law. Any “open platform” that routinely limits, editorializes against or bans political or religious speech isn’t really a platform at all; it’s a publisher, and as such, it should be subject to the same rules all publishers are required to adhere to.
Since the order was announced, many on the left – and even some on the right – have alleged that Trump’s action is meant to limit the free speech rights of social media platforms. But this is, simply put, a gross mischaracterization.
The executive order doesn’t say Twitter, Facebook or any other website can’t censor political speech. As private companies, they have a First Amendment right to limit as much speech as they desire. The order simply states that websites that choose to censor reasonable, nonviolent political speech should be treated like the publishers they are, not open platforms. That was always the intent of Section 230, and it’s the only fair way of characterizing an “open platform.”
Other critics of Trump’s order have said that it’s unnecessary because social media platforms aren’t really targeting conservatives, but that’s just not true. Twitter and other platforms have on many occasions banned, limited or editorialized the speech of conservative and libertarian users seemingly for no real reason other than that they don’t like their speech.
I know this from firsthand experience. In 2019, Facebook informed me that I would be permanently banned from advertising on its platform because it claimed an ad I posted showing the final minutes of a speech I gave about the dangers of socialism was “misleading.”
I appealed the decision several times over the course of more than a month, and each time, I was told there was nothing I could do to reverse the decision and that I wouldn’t be provided with any specific details regarding the reasoning behind the ban.
(For the record, nothing about the video was misleading, racist, violent or anything of that sort. You can watch the video for yourself here.)
Despite my many attempts at appealing the decision, it was not until the ban started receiving media coverage that Facebook suddenly reversed its decision, calling it a “mistake.” Of course, the ban couldn’t have been a simple mistake; I appealed it several times, and Facebook’s advertising team upheld the ban every time.
Thousands of others have reported similar experiences with social media platforms, and without actions like the ones taken by President Trump, the abuse would continue for years to come.
The conservative and libertarian movements, and free speech in general, are facing an existential crisis. If social media platforms and search engines that control the vast majority of content accessed by people in the United States and around the world are allowed to silence anyone they want, for any reason, while continuing to benefit from liability protections, then America will soon reach a moment where the only political discourse tolerated in most of its largest forums will be speech approved by a relatively small number of wealthy tech giants.
With that in mind, it is astounding that so many on the left who spend their days railing against “evil” corporations would be so willing to empower some of the wealthiest corporations in the world with controlling speech. I guess that for some, principle only matters when it doesn’t get in the way of silencing ideological opponents.
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