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US Senator moves to strip social media giants of platform status

The issue of social media censorship has caught the attention of the US Senate, where one member has proposed stripping tech giants of their legal protection as platforms.

Section 230 of the absurdly-named Communications Decency Act states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. It’s considered a vital piece of legislation for the internet as without it platforms such as forums, social media and YouTube wouldn’t be able to allow their users to instantly upload their own comment and content.

The key feature concerns legal protection. If you’re considered a publisher as, for example, Telecoms.com is, then you’re legally liable for everything that appears on your site as you are considered to have published it yourself. If US law views you as a platform, however, you are spared such liability because you’re deemed to have no influence over what gets whacked up on your site by its users.

When you start censoring them, however, that line becomes blurred. If, say, Facebook decides certain types of content are not allowed on its platform and actively censors them, then the implication is that it approves of everything it doesn’t censor. That, in turn could be perceived as it acting more like a publisher than a platform and should therefore lose its legal protections.

This seems to be the view of US Senator Josh Hawley, who has introduced new legislation he’s calling the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act. “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,” said Hawley. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

“There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with. Even worse, the entire process is shrouded in secrecy because these companies refuse to make their protocols public. This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity, they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don’t discriminate.”

The long and short of it is that Section 230 protection will no longer be an automatic right for any tech company that has either: more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or who have more than $500 million in global annual revenue. Instead they would have to earn that status by regularly convincing the FTC that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.

This move has probably been supported behind the scenes by US President Trump, who has made it clear that he thinks social media censorship is biased against conservatives and probably thinks it’s also biased against him personally. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is a largely Democrat, as opposed to Republican, environment and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of political bias in social media censorship and if this bill went through they would be under immense pressure to stop it.

The companies themselves don’t seem to have publicly commented on the proposed bill, but the internet seems split. Plenty of commentators such as the EFF and Techdirt think the move is unconstitutional and would give too much power of censorship to the government. The Verge, however, has adopted a neutral stance for now and independent YouTube Journalist Tim Pool seems to think it’s a positive development.


We think it’s right that social media companies should be stripped of their Section 230 protection if they start acting as censors, and thus publishers, but don’t think the answer is for the state to have power of censorship over them. If, instead, they just passed a law banning the censorship of all legal material that would solve the problem, while at the same time giving them protection from irate advertisers, without making these private companies beholden to the whims of the state.

 


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