On Wednesday, the Department of Justice and Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, announced their separate but similar plans to gut Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the law that allows for the existence of social media as we know it.
Conservatives claim that these proposals will defend their political speech online, yet, by using government power to force websites to host speech they don’t want to, these Republicans are fundamentally undermining free speech on the Internet and the First Amendment.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act allows websites to host user-created content, like photos and written posts. The law also enables them to moderate that content — such as removing profanity or lewd images — without then becoming liable for user-created content by bad actors. Back in the 1990s, when this law was passed, conservatives wanted websites to remove harmful content, but today’s conservatives think social media sites take down too much content and are too expansive with their definition of “harmful.”
A new wave of conservatives skeptical of businesses and free markets argues the government must step in to reduce the amount of political content removed by social media sites. They feel that attempts to remove offensive, hateful and violent speech undermine their ability to advocate for conservative politics.
These tech-skeptic conservatives propose threatening Section 230, a law critical for social media to exist, to pressure tech platforms into providing special treatment for conservative content. They claim that government pressure is necessary to protect free speech online.
By using government intervention to compel private businesses to host speech they don’t want to, conservatives like Mr. Hawley and those in the Department of Justice are harming free speech — not protecting it.
Social media platforms, like any other media company, are in the business of spreading and sharing information. But, with so much information online, media companies have to be smart about how to best provide information to their customers. Traditional written media, like The New York Times, does this by employing reporters and editors to identify, curate and communicate important information.
Social media companies are different because they allow users to post, share and engage with almost any information those users want. Clever algorithms then help curate and communicate this cornucopia of information to consumers in useful or entertaining ways.
The freedom of speech in the United States, including the First Amendment, has long protected the ability of media, social or traditional, to share useful information to their consumers, readers and users free from government interference. If the U.S. government gets into the business of controlling the spread of information, we risk allowing politicians to risk allowing politicians to become Big Brother and dictate what we say and who we say it to.
Despite claiming the mantle of free speech, politicians threatening social media with government intervention — either through Section 230 reform or antitrust enforcement — are using the power of government to shape how information is shared all across the country.
If these threats are successful, websites like Twitter would lose control over what is said on their websites to the hands of powerful politicians. Through using leverage, rather than legislation, to regulate online speech, conservatives might not be breaking the word of the First Amendment, but they are attacking the principle it supports, that government should not be in the business of dictating the rules of political speech.
Conservatives concerned about their reach online should innovate, not intervene, using government action. Doing so would enable the conservative movement to identify what weaknesses, if any, exist in their online advocacy. If they did, they would discover that online conservative activism is actually out-performing its liberal counterparts.
On YouTube, the right thrashes the left in video popularity. PragerU, a prominent conservative media organization that unsuccessfully sued Google for limiting its online reach, surpassed 3 billion video views in December 2019 — a statistic no liberal counterpart is even close too, let alone matching. Top performing posts on Facebook regularly highlight how conservative sources dominate online conversation.
By using government action to dictate the rules of online political debate, conservatives undermine not only their own principles, but also America’s founding values. It should be private actors, not coercive government, that determine political discourse. By expanding the government’s role in the spread of information, conservative politicians risk opening a Pandora’s Box of government abuse. Currently, merit and innovation drive conservative success online. In a future where the government propagandizes what news and views are most prevalent, conservatives may not be so lucky.
• Robert Winterton is a Tech Policy Fellow for Young Voices and Director of Public Affairs for NetChoice.