Critics weigh in as Section 230 proposals threaten free speech

Critics weigh in as Section 230 proposals threaten free speech
Ryan is an editor at TechForge Media with over a decade of experience covering the latest technology and interviewing leading industry figures. He can often be sighted at tech conferences with a strong coffee in one hand and a laptop in the other. If it's geeky, he’s probably into it. Find him on Twitter: @Gadget_Ry

Critics have weighed in on proposals to change or scrap Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online companies from being sued for what users share.

Section 230 was thrust into the limelight after President Trump claimed it’s being used to silence voices after some of his tweets were flagged as containing misinformation.

However, Section 230 consists of just 26 words and is designed to protect free speech:

“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.”

Trump’s views weren’t silenced, as they were still publicly available, but he wants the ability to sue online platforms. Many critics view it as an attempt to scare social media platforms into banning views which conflict with the president’s to avoid the risk of being sued.

The authors of Section 230, former SEC chairman Chris Cox and Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, recently said that the legislation was “supposed to keep the government away from deciding what content could and could not appear on internet platforms”.

A further threat to net neutrality

Net neutrality is the idea that all web content and traffic must be treated equally. It became a hot topic around 2017-18 after legislation implemented during Obama’s administration was repealed.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University subsequently published findings of how companies have taken advantage of less internet regulation under Trump’s administration to limit data speeds for consumers.

Further proposed legal changes, such as the upcoming Earn IT Act, introduces the “risk of political control of content,” warned Cox. “We don’t want a speech police, we want users to be able to express themselves.”

Many comments submitted to the FCC proposal show a clear misunderstanding of Section 230 as being a threat to free speech, rather than a defender of it.

“For too long free speech, the literal 1st amendment added to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights, has been stifled by publishers pretending to be platforms,” wrote one commenter in a filing.

“Political speech must be removed from the section 230 exemptions,” wrote another. “Biased content providers are actively censoring speech they disagree with under false pretenses.”

Akin to China’s strict web censorship

The debate around Section 230 began after Trump expressed annoyance over the fact-checking of his tweets and issued an executive order to rework the legislation.

The concern about bias in fact-checking is understandable. If, for example, a platform is fact-checking right-wing figures more than those on the left – it could lead to unfairly influencing voters’ opinions.

Public trust needs to be built in fact-checking that it’s unbiased and independent where implemented, but it’s clearly needed in an age when disinformation campaigns are rife and spread dangerously across social media like wildfire.

However, the current path of non-government-approved views being suppressed altogether – and asking online platforms to become the “speech police” for the content shared by users – is dangerous territory more akin to China’s strict web censorship.

And it’s not just conservative figures calling for changes to Section 230. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called for Section 230 to be scrapped altogether.

Calling out his own party’s candidate, Wyden recently said that “those who want to throw it out need to say what they are going to do instead.”

The President’s speech police

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement: “The FCC shouldn’t take this bait. While social media can be frustrating, turning this agency into the President’s speech police is not the answer. If we honour the Constitution, we will reject this petition immediately.”

As one of the world’s largest content delivery networks, Akamai is concerned about the potential impact the consultation around Section 230 may lead to.

In its own filing to the FCC, Akamai wrote:

“As an infrastructure provider, Akamai does not monitor, moderate, remove, publish, or create content. Rather, its core business is deliberately content-agnostic, simply optimizing and accelerating content otherwise available on the internet.

Akamai agrees with initial statements by others that the Commission lacks legal authority to adopt NTIA’s proposed rules. It also believes that NTIA’s proposed rules are inconsistent with fundamental First Amendment principles.”

Akamai facilitates as much as 30 percent of global web traffic at any one moment to ensure web users have a great experience while safeguarding against the huge amounts of attack traffic originating from overseas.

Asking networks, whether the likes of Akamai or Facebook, to censor all the content that web users share – according to what the government decides to allow – is the real threat to free speech and net neutrality as a whole.

Section 230 is known as the “twenty-six words that created the internet”. We can only hope any changes don’t destroy it.

(Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash)

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