June 17, 2020 — “Section 230 is on fire in D.C.,” said Eric Goldman, professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, at a Wednesday webinar hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
Panelists on the webinar discussed President Donald Trump’s recent executive order regarding the controversial statute, as well as other recent attempts to curb its reach. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice issued new recommendations for reforming the statute, and Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a bill that would allow users to sue internet companies for uneven or “bad faith” enforcement of their terms of service.
Each proposal attempts to curtail the liability protections that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides to online platform companies hosting third party content.
“The executive order was really the kind of stuff you would expect to hear at a President Trump for Reelection campaign rally, rather than what you’d expect to see in a legally binding document that has gone through full legal vetting by a well-functioning executive branch,” Goldman said.
While opponents of Section 230 claim that it allows social media companies to limit free speech, Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks pointed out that the companies themselves are protected by the First Amendment.
“In focusing on Section 230, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Constitution — not just a statute — protects private actors’ right to label, moderate, and otherwise control speech on their platforms,” he said. “The First Amendment allows social media companies to censor content freely in ways the government never could, and it prohibits the government from retaliating against them for their speech.”
The executive order directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department to send a petition asking the FCC to propose regulations regarding Section 230.
Starks urged the NTIA to send this request as quickly as possible, rather than waiting until the prescribed deadline at the end of July.
“If, as I suspect it will, the petition fails at the threshold legal question of authority, we should say so loud and clear, close the book on this unfortunate detour and get back to the important work of closing the digital divide,” he said.
Starks also emphasized the political timing of the order.
“Whatever you think of its merits, the executive order represents the President’s clear intention to influence how social media companies operate at a time when their decisions are heavily implicated in his own electoral future,” he said.
Other experts question the need for the executive order
Kate Klonick, assistant professor at the St. John’s University School of Law, agreed, saying that “this has turned into a way to go after platforms and big tech companies because they hold a lot of power and a lot of amplifying potential for politicians.”
Goldman argued that the debate over content moderation should be framed as editorial discretion rather than censorship. Companies clearly have the right to exercise their editorial discretion in a politically biased way, he said, even if such an outcome is undesirable.
There is no evidence currently supporting the existence of political bias on social media platforms, Goldman claimed, and by definition, every single content moderation decision creates a winner and a loser.
“Those losers, over time, feel like they can look around, find other people who have the same outcome and say, ‘how come they’re all picking on us?’” Goldman said. “The losers are always going to be unhappy with the outcome they got, and they’re always going to claim that that was a result of bias against them.”
Content guidelines on social media platforms have stayed largely the same for the past several years, Klonick added. Any perceived uptick in enforcement is likely explained by the growing amount of extremist speech online.
Starks expressed skepticism about whether the FCC should even be playing a role in the regulation, explaining that the agency has power to act either when expressly directed to do so by Congress or when Congress leaves an interpretive gap to be filled.
“Neither has happened here,” he said. “Section 230 provides a self-enforcing rule for courts to apply in private litigation and does not give the FCC an enforcement or administrative role.”
“That the president might find it more expedient to influence a five-member Commission than a 538-member Congress is not a sufficient reason, much less a good one, to circumvent the constitutional function of our democratically elected representatives,” he added.
Klonick noted the importance of a commissioner arguing that his own agency is not supposed to have a certain authority.
“The phrase ‘when you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail’ comes to mind, and if you’re actually going, ‘oh no, this isn’t a nail,’ and you’re hearing it from the hammer, I think that’s pretty significant,” she said.
Narrow Majority of Supreme Court Blocks Texas Law Regulating Social Media Platforms
The decision resulted in an unusual court split. Justice Kagan sided with Justice Alito but refused to sign his dissent.
WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – On a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that Republicans had argued would address the “censorship” of conservative voices on social media platforms.
Texas H.B. 20 was written by Texas Republicans to combat perceived bias against conservative viewpoints voiced on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms with at least 50 million active monthly users.
The bill was drafted at least in part as a reaction to President Donald Trump’s ban from social media. Immediately following the January 6 riots at the United States Capitol, Trump was simultaneously banned on several platforms and online retailers, including Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and myriad other websites.
See also Explainer: With Florida Social Media Law, Section 230 Now Positioned In Legal Spotlight, Broadband Breakfast, May 25, 2021
Close decision on First Amendment principles
A brief six-page dissent on the matter was released on Tuesday. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the law should have been allowed to stand. Justice Elena Kagan also agreed that the law should be allowed to stand, though she did not join Alito’s penned dissent and did not elaborate further.
The decision was on an emergency action to vacate a one-sentence decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court had reversed a prior stay by a federal district court. In other words, the, the law passed by the Texas legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott is precluded from going into effect.
Tech lobbying group NetChoice – in addition to many entities in Silicon Valley – argued that the law would prevent social media platforms from moderating and addressing hateful and potentially inflammatory content.
In a statement, Computer & Communications Industry Association President Matt Schruers said, “We are encouraged that this attack on First Amendment rights has been halted until a court can fully evaluate the repercussions of Texas’s ill-conceived statute.”
“This ruling means that private American companies will have an opportunity to be heard in court before they are forced to disseminate vile, abusive or extremist content under this Texas law. We appreciate the Supreme Court ensuring First Amendment protections, including the right not to be compelled to speak, will be upheld during the legal challenge to Texas’s social media law.”
In a statement, Public Knowledge Legal Director John Bergmayer said, “It is good that the Supreme Court blocked HB 20, the Texas online speech regulation law. But it should have been unanimous. It is alarming that so many policymakers, and even Supreme Court justices, are willing to throw out basic principles of free speech to try to control the power of Big Tech for their own purposes, instead of trying to limit that power through antitrust and other competition policies. Reining in the power of tech giants does not require abandoning the First Amendment.”
In his dissent, Alito pointed out that the plaintiffs argued “HB 20 interferes with their exercise of ‘editorial discretion,’ and they maintain that this interference violates their right ‘not to disseminate speech generated by others.’”
“Under some circumstances, we have recognized the right of organizations to refuse to host the speech of others,” he said, referencing Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc.
“But we have rejected such claims in other circumstances,” he continued, pointing to PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins.
Will Section 230 be revamped on a full hearing by the Supreme Court?
“It is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies, but Texas argues that its law is permissible under our case law,” Alito said.
Alito argued that there is a distinction between compelling a platform to host a message and refraining from discriminating against a user’s speech “on the basis of viewpoint.” He said that H.B. 20 adopted the latter approach.
Alito went on, arguing that the bill only applied to “platforms that hold themselves out as ‘open to the public,’” and “neutral forums for the speech of others,” and thus, the targeting platforms are not spreading messages they endorse.
Alito added that because the bill only targets platforms with more than 50 million users, it only targets entities with “some measure of common carrier-like market power and that this power gives them an ‘opportunity to shut out [disfavored] speakers.’”
Justices John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett all voted affirmatively – siding with NetChoice LLC’s emergency application – to block H.B. 20 from being enforced.
Parler Policy Exec Hopes ‘Sustainable’ Free Speech Change on Twitter if Musk Buys Platform
Parler’s Amy Peikoff said she wishes Twitter can follow in her social media company’s footsteps.
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2022 – A representative from a growing conservative social media platform said last week that she hopes Twitter, under new leadership, will emerge as a “sustainable” platform for free speech.
Amy Peikoff, chief policy officer of social media platform Parler, said as much during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday, in which she wondered about the implications of platforms banning accounts for views deemed controversial.
The social media world has been captivated by the lingering possibility that SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk could buy Twitter, which the billionaire has criticized for making decisions he said infringe on free speech.
Before Musk’s decision to go in on the company, Parler saw a surge in member sign-ups after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for comments he made that the platform saw as encouraging the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, a move Peikoff criticized. (Trump also criticized the move.)
Peikoff said she believes Twitter should be a free speech platform just like Parler and hopes for “sustainable” change with Musk’s promise.
“At Parler, we expect you to think for yourself and curate your own feed,” Peikoff told Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark. “The difference between Twitter and Parler is that on Parler the content is controlled by individuals; Twitter takes it upon itself to moderate by itself.”
She recommended “tools in the hands of the individual users to reward productive discourse and exercise freedom of association.”
Peikoff criticized Twitter for permanently banning Donald Trump following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and recounted the struggle Parler had in obtaining access to hosting services on AWS, Amazon’s web services platform.
While she defended the role of Section 230 of the Telecom Act for Parler and others, Peikoff criticized what she described as Twitter’s collusion with the government. Section 230 provides immunity from civil suits for comments posted by others on a social media network.
For example, Peikoff cited a July 2021 statement by former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki raising concerns with “misinformation” on social media. When Twitter takes action to stifle anti-vaccination speech at the behest of the White House, that crosses the line into a form of censorship by social media giants that is, in effect, a form of “state action.”
Conservatives censored by Twitter or other social media networks that are undertaking such “state action” are wrongfully being deprived of their First Amendment rights, she said.
“I would not like to see more of this entanglement of government and platforms going forward,” she said Peikoff and instead to “leave human beings free to information and speech.”
The acquisition of social media powerhouse Twitter by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, raises a host of issues about social media, free speech, and the power of persuasion in our digital age. Twitter already serves as the world’s de facto public square. But it hasn’t been without controversy, including the platform’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump in the wake of his tweets during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Under new management, will Twitter become more hospitable to Trump and his allies? Does Twitter have a free speech problem? How will Mr. Musk’s acquisition change the debate about social media and Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act?
Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:
- Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer, Parler
- Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
Amy Peikoff is the Chief Policy Officer of Parler. After completing her Ph.D., she taught at universities (University of Texas, Austin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States Air Force Academy) and law schools (Chapman, Southwestern), publishing frequently cited academic articles on privacy law, as well as op-eds in leading newspapers across the country on a range of issues. Just prior to joining Parler, she founded and was President of the Center for the Legalization of Privacy, which submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Facebook in 2019.
Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
Leave Section 230 Alone, Panelists Urge Government
The debate on what government should — or shouldn’t — do with respect to liability protections for platforms continues.
WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022 – A panelist at a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday said that the government should not make changes to Section 230, which protects online platforms from being liable for the content their users post.
However, the other panelist, Newsweek Opinion Editor Josh Hammer, said technology companies have been colluding with the government to stifle speech. Hammer said that Section 230 should be interpreted and applied more vigorously against tech platforms.
Countering this view was Niam Yaraghi, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
“While I do agree with the notion that what these platforms are doing is not right, I am much more optimistic” than Hammer, Yaraghi said. “I do not really like the government to come in and do anything about it, because I believe that a capitalist market, an open market, would solve the issue in the long run.”
Addressing a question from the moderator about whether antitrust legislation or stricter interpretation of Section 230 should be the tool to require more free speech on big tech platforms, Hammer said that “Section 230 is the better way to go here.”
Yaraghi, by contrast, said that it was incumbent on big technology platforms to address content moderation, not the government.
In March, Vint Cerf, a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, and the president of tech lobbyist TechFreedom warned against government moderation of content on the internet as Washington focuses on addressing the power of big tech platforms.
While some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms”, others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Legislation from the likes of Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would exempt 230 protections for platforms that fail to address Covid mis- and disinformation.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed that Section 230 only protected “neutral platforms,” or that it allowed tech companies to ignore user harm. Wyden, one of the authors of the provision in the 1996 Telecom Act, instead believes that the law is a “sword and shield” to protect against small companies, organizations and movements against legal liability for what users post on their websites.
Additional correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a statement by Niam Yaraghi to Josh Hammer. The story has been corrected, and additional context added.
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