June 23, 2020 — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has played an important role in the shifting center of power on the internet, but where that center of power should reside going forward is a hotly contested topic.
“The story of whether 230 is deregulatory is … a complicated story, because it’s been invoked by the agency to do different things, pro-regulatory and less regulatory,” said Fordham University Law Professor Olivier Sylvain, speaking at a Tuesday panel hosted by Yale Law School.
Proponents of Section 230 often tell “the story that the internet has thrived in the absence of regulation and because of the absence of regulation,” Berkeley Law Professor Tejas Narechania said.
But statute has also been used by the Federal Communications Commission (under former chairman Kevin Martin) as a way to punish discriminatory behavior regarding net neutrality by Comcast.
Blake Reid, professor at the University of Colorado Law School, proposed looking at the agency’s approach to the internet by dividing it into different layers: the physical layer, the network layer, the application layer and the content layer.
“This is a question about where power is concentrated in the layer stack of the internet,” he said. “The conception that Section 230 had back in 1996 was really worried about internet service providers having a lot of power.”
In the years since, Reid said, the power has completely shifted to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
“There’s a way you can view 230 as intermediating the relationship between ISPs and platforms,” he said.
The Republican Trump administration is proposing ‘direct regulation of speech’ long feared from Democrats
Panelists also discussed President Donald Trump’s recent executive order attempting to curb Section 230 protections, which Narechania called “direct regulation of speech in a way that telecommunication regulation has tried to avoid for a very long time.”
“It’s lunacy to have the White House through an executive order make the Commerce Department through the NTIA make a recommendation to the FCC, an independent agency, to intervene in an area that most people think the FCC has not had historical authority over,” Sylvain said.
The FCC is not required to actually take any action based on the NTIA’s petition, he added.
“If you look at Republican Party orthodoxy in terms of the FCC regulating the internet, that was a fear of what the Democrats were going to do,” Reid said. “That was the worst nightmare of every Republican telecom consultant for 20 years, so to suddenly see a Republican president on the other side of it is just wild.”
Echos of net neutrality in the call for political nondiscrimination
Reid compared Trump’s call for political nondiscrimination mandates on platforms such as Twitter to the fight over net neutrality.
“If you’re accessing some particular kind of content — maybe you’re looking up websites that have a lot of political content that’s favorable to Republicans, but not Democrats — the ISP cannot block that,” he said. “We’ve had this very pitched battle for the better part of the last 20 years about whether the FCC has the authority to do that.”
While he disagreed with the interpretation that Section 230 is just a statutory implementation of what the First Amendment already requires, Reid emphasized the importance of examining the overlap between the constitutional amendment and the statute.
Getting rid of Section 230 might not have the catastrophic impact on content moderation that some have suggested, he said.
In that way, Section 230 “has stalled the development of First Amendment doctrine in this area,” he said.
Other efforts to curb or change Section 230 beyond Donald Trump
In addition to Trump’s executive order, there have been several other recent proposals to curtail Section 230’s reach, including new reform recommendations from the Justice Department and a bill introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has long been one of the statute’s fiercest opponents.
“I don’t know what the world looks like if these policy interventions get any wind behind their sails,” Sylvain said. “I am skeptical about the Hawley bill, [but] there’s another one that will emerge very soon that is addressed more to the business model of these companies, and that’s something that I’m far more interested in seeing.”
Reid was dismissive about the realistic potential of such efforts.
“It’s really effective politics because it ties up the machinery of the bureaucracy in dealing with all of this nonsense, but it’s not designed to get passed, just like I think most of Hawley’s bills are not really designed to pass,” Reid said. “I think Hawley would be quite unhappy if suddenly the Democratic caucus came around and said, ‘Oh yes, we would love to pass this bill of yours.’”
However, Narechania expressed more concern about the future implications of the various proposals.
“I agree [the executive order] is political theater, but it seems like political theater that has the potential to make a whole lot of administrative law and telecommunications law,” he said. “And that makes me sort of nervous — it makes me really nervous.”
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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