A Republican senator from Missouri wants to change the fundamental way that most of big-tech functions. While I agree there are plenty of problems with tech companies, most of them privacy related, that's not what this is about. Senator Josh Hawley wants to eliminate the immunity that platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Google receive that prevents them from being held liable for the content created by their users.
Passed in 1996, the Communications Decency Act has essentially made it possible for the internet as we know it--as a platform for the exchange of information and ideas--to exist. It has provided crucial protection to online platforms that don't directly publish content but, rather, allow users to create, publish, and share on their own.
Without it, there'd be no Google. No Facebook. No YouTube.
The tech industry is under fire.
Lately, however, many of these companies have come under criticism because of their response to what some view as extreme or radical views, and which others believe is unfair targeting of specific political viewpoints.
YouTube, for example, recently posted on its blog a statement that reads, "The openness of YouTube's platform has helped creativity and access to information thrive. It's our responsibility to protect that, and prevent our platform from being used to incite hatred, harassment, discrimination, and violence."
This comes after the company adjusted its recommendation algorithm to reduce the prevalence of fringe, but not necessarily hateful or extremist, content. Both actions have resulted in a dramatic reduction in channels the company has deemed in violation of its new terms.
Now, sensing that the political winds have moved toward more regulation of these tech companies, Congress apparently wants to get involved. Senator Hawley's legislation appears to be the first step and is in direct response to what he believes is unfair targeting of specific political beliefs.
What would change?
The senator says in a statement, "With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain."
In exchange for maintaining their immunity, tech companies would be required to submit to an audit every two years to affirm that their content practices are free from political bias.
Before we go into what this all means, I just want to say that it's possible the only thing worse than big tech deciding what "forum free of political censorship" means is the government deciding what it means.
There is an especially loud call for Congress to do something about the influence that tech companies hold over our daily lives, and politicians of both parties have called for the breakup of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Many have also complained that social media networks are unfairly biased against conservative political opinions. The complaints include unfounded calls by the president that Google only shows unfavorable results when people search for him.
Here's the thing.
The lesser of two evils
Whatever problems these tech companies have, and there are plenty, the absolute last thing that any of us should want is for Congress to decide how these companies should approach content--even extreme or political material.
That's literally the "free speech worst-case scenario."
As a small-business owner, there's a pretty good chance that your business is directly affected by these companies and the platforms they've built. You probably advertise on them, connect with your customers through them, and even use them to get better at whatever it is you do.
All of those things depend on the ability to allow the unfettered sharing of content. To have unrestricted access to "good" content--however you define it--you're going to have to put up with the reality that some people will use the same platform to share garbage. That's just what it means to live in a free society. As soon as you try to change that dynamic, you end up with someone else deciding what you're allowed to access.
Honestly, if that's the case, I'd actually rather it be the tech companies.