July 8, 2020 — Despite the hate that big tech companies receive, social media platforms are essential in enabling online speech at the level seen today, with the help of Section 230, said Cathy Gellis, an attorney who specializes in internet intermediary law.
Gellis made her remarks at the second event in a Broadband Breakfast Live Online series examining facts and fictions about Section 230, sponsored by the Computer & Communications Industry Association.
“If people had to be afraid of what you expressed, then they would have to jump in and possibly not let you express it,” she said. “So if we’re going to have this ideal that people can speak freely, we need to protect the people who enable this expression, or else it’ll be death by duck nibbles and we’ll get sued out of existence.”
TechFreedom Senior Fellow Berin Szóka compared Section 230 to anti-SLAPP laws, which aim to prevent people from using the court system to intimidate others who are exercising their First Amendment rights. The acronym stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”
Although the speech in question is already protected by the First Amendment, Szóka explained, anti-SLAPP laws and Section 230 both curb the threat of costly litigation and criminal prosecution.
Szóka also emphasized the limitations of Section 230’s protection pointing out that it only protects interactive computer service providers from content that they are not responsible for creating, even in part.
“If you’re Backpage.com, and you hire a company to draft sex trafficking ads, you’re not protected by Section 230,” he explained. “If you’re Roommates.com, and you solicit racially discriminatory preferences for housing, you’re not protected by Section 230. If you’re Twitter, and you add your own content next to someone else’s content — like labels on the President’s tweets — those aren’t protected by Section 230.”
Section 230 plays a major role in explaining why social media companies have flourished almost exclusively within the United States, Szóka said.
Certain other countries instead use the “innocent dissemination defense,” which protects platforms only if they are entirely unaware of the content in question.
“That’s exactly what Congress was trying to avoid [by creating Section 230], because if that’s the only safe harbor you have from liability, you have a perverse incentive not to monitor your service and not to try to moderate content to protect users from harmful content,” Szóka said.
Tech journalist Rob Pegoraro pointed out the irony in so-called conservatives calling for increased government regulation of private companies.
“[They’ve] decided it’s worthwhile to say, ‘Look at how unfair Twitter and Facebook are, they’re censoring us, they’re shadow banning,’” he said. “It’s just crazy when you look at how well President Trump has used Facebook and Twitter as platforms.”
One of the most common misconceptions about Section 230, according to Pegoraro, is that it requires platforms to be politically neutral.
“There is no way you get that from a reading of the law,” he said. “But I have seen politicians [like] Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who has a degree from Yale — I hear they’re pretty good at teaching law — who has said you must be politically neutral or you don’t get these protections, which is bananas.”
In addition, “bad faith” behavior is hard to define, Pegoraro said. While many have claimed that social media platforms discriminate against Republicans, Pegoraro said he saw no evidence of that.
On the other side of the aisle, “it could be the issue that Facebook says it doesn’t want to be an arbiter of truth, but in fact, it is quite happy to kick people off of Facebook if they happen to be activists in Tunisia or Palestine, which I think is a legit complaint,” he said.
Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has previously expressed support for the repeal of Section 230, citing the rampant spread of potentially dangerous misinformation online.
“The way in which blatant falsehood is spreading on the internet is a real problem,” Szóka said. “But I have yet to see a legal solution to that problem, because at the end of the day, these services, whatever their role is in moderating content, they’re not courts, they’re not grand juries, they don’t have the capacity to investigate.”
“Forcing them by law to make decisions about taking down certain content or certain users not only raises obvious First Amendment problems, but is hopelessly impossible,” he added.
Gellis described Section 230 as being “all carrot, no stick,” arguing that this was important in order to empower companies to balance leaving the most good stuff up and taking the most bad stuff down.
In spite of the law’s essential role, she said, politicians have begun pointing to it as a scapegoat for all online problems, when they should instead be focusing on creating more support for the regulatory ecosystem as a whole.
“The problem is [that Section 230 is] kind of the only good law we really have in the internet world,” she said.
Szóka pointed out that much of the controversy over Section 230 is relatively recent.
“2016 is probably the tipping point [of] when it went from being pretty clear among anybody who was in internet policy that we just wouldn’t have the user centric internet without Section 230 to Section 230 becoming the political football that it is today,” he said.
Broadband Breakfast’s series on Section 230 will conclude next Wednesday with a discussion on public input on platform algorithms, considering the role of transparency and feedback in information technology.
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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