Kara Frederick from the conservative Heritage Foundation published a report called “Combating Big Tech’s totalitarianism” this week. Frederick, who refers to companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google in her report, has an unfavorable view of the sector’s current condition. Although some of her suggestions may be understandable and even worthy, the bulk of the report is wrong.
Frederick begins by describing censorial actions of “Big Tech” companies. She defines these as Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Meta, along with other tech companies such as Netflix, TikTok and Twitter. Some incidents, such as social media platforms banning users from sharing, are indeed troubling. New York PostJust weeks before the 2020 election was, Hunter Biden wrote an article. YouTube also suspended videos of politicians simply for discussing health issues. While none of this is a violation of the First Amendment, since private companies are free to permit or deny any speech that they wish, these actions can detract form a culture where freedom of speech.
Some of the reform suggestions in this report are off-track. Frederick specifically invokes Section 230 which protects websites against liability for user-generated content. However, she is not familiar with its history or application. According to the report, digital platforms such as Facebook and Google were initially considered neutral information conduits. Section 230 enshrined that claim and enabled these companies to gain users and technical benefits under its auspices. It is incorrect. Section 230 was written almost a decade before these companies and couldn’t have been written with them in mind. What’s more, Section 230 has nothing to do with a platform’s neutrality—the explicit intent of the law was to EncourageModeration platforms
Many of the recommendations in the report call for reforms which would be either difficult or worsen the internet. One recommendation states, “In addition to clarifying what speech may be (and is expected to be) moderated under Section 230, policymakers should expressly state specific examples of what is not covered… If firms are moderating content based on these criteria, they should not be afforded liability protections under Section 230 and would not be considered ‘viewpoint-neutral.'” It is absurd to think that anyone could compile a complete list of all things online.
Viewpoint neutrality, though a somewhat elusive concept, is almost completely within one’s grasp. You may find something radical to your liking, but it could be completely acceptable. It is also almost certain that some speech will be preferred over others. unconstitutional. A group of atheists could crash a sermon to attempt to convert the congregation, and the pastor would have the right to request that they be removed. Frederick claims that, if exactly the same interaction occurred on the church website’s comments section, that would be grounds for the church to remove that material.
While tech companies can certainly be criticised, the report does have merit. Its recommendations, however, focus so much of the blame on Section 230 and a loose target of neutrality that it threatens to turn the internet into a place where expression is restricted rather than free speech. This is the wrong approach if the aim is to restore the freedom of expression and technology’s democratic promises, which is what the report says.