Lawmakers in two states are now considering legislation that push back against censorship by online online communications monopolies, in particular, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
In Texas, Senate Bill 12 would prohibit online censorship based on the views expressed or repeated by a social media user based in the state. According to the sponsoring Senator, Bryan Hughes, “affected users could sue to get reinstated online if they were removed or blocked from social media over statements about politics, religion or other opinions.”
In Florida, one proposal in the state Senate would force Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to give users a month’s notice before their accounts are disabled or suspended. Another proposal would “prohibit companies from suspending the account of a political candidate and be subject to a fine of $100,000 for each day the account of a statewide candidate is blocked, or $10,000 a day for other office seekers.”
That conservatives are routinely singled out for suppression, demonetizing, or deplatforming ought to be obvious. Conservatives question several narratives that liberals tend to accept – election integrity, early treatment options for COVID-19, climate change, and a host of race and gender related issues. The website Massachusetts Live just published a report, citing numerous examples, of how this bias even extends to comedians. You can tell any joke you want, as long as it only attacks conservatives. The Babylon Bee is demonetized. The Onion is not. Go figure.
Online communications platforms benefit from a federal law known as Section 230, which was added to the Communications Decency Act in 1996 to protect fledgling internet communications platforms from being sued for content posted by their users. It’s a good law, but it comes with an obligation: If online communications platforms are to be immune from liability for what their users post, they also must not behave as publishers and selectively edit content. Because publishers are liable for the content on their platforms, as they should be. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are trying to keep their cake and eat it too.
All of these efforts are problematic. Calls to repeal Section 230 could backfire. As it is, these biased platforms have to at least maintain the appearance of equanimity. If they are subject to lawsuits from anyone feeling threatened or offended by their content, they would scrub anything even slightly controversial from their platforms. And small alternative platforms would be even more cautious, and hence more even more censorious, since they would lack the financial resources to withstand any lawsuits by supposedly aggrieved parties.
As for these measures in Texas and Florida, they may help a little. Allowing content providers recourse in civil court when they’ve been censored will help those players with enough money to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit. Using the state itself to prosecute these platform operators if they take down political ads may also help.
The best course however, is common sense from the U.S. Congress. Section 230 to be enforced, not scrapped.
* * *