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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kristof

How Republicans Will Censor Republicans Online

The open internet has been taking hits from top Republicans as of late. Soon, it may face its biggest threat yet.

CNN reports that the Trump administration has recently been circulating drafts of an executive order that would limit Section 230 of the Communications Dignity Act in the name of political neutrality. To put it briefly, Section 230 establishes that owners of online platforms aren’t held legally liable for content users’ or third parties’ posts on their sites. And while the details of the order are still under construction, it’s possible that Sen. Josh Hawley gets his way. That’s an issue, because Hawley is ready to die on the hill of removing the Section 230 protection unless platforms pass frequent audits by the FTC. Of course, that would be a horrendous mistake.

Changing default liability would be one of the most destructive options the Trump administration could pursue. Republicans, angry at the mere idea of conservatives being censored, want to toss Section 230 simply out of self-preservation. But the irony is that once companies are legally responsible for any content that users put on their sites, they’ll be forced to be much more intense in moderating all content. In that case, everyone loses.

Even if each affected company regularly passed Hawley’s suggested FTC audits, the chance and cost of failure would still be too high for them not to rely on stricter moderation. After all, the FTC is given no concrete ways to measure platforms’ algorithms and moderation.

Just check out the Hawley bill’s loose definitions. Moderation must not be designed to “negatively affect a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” A company also fails the bias audit if it “disproportionately restricts or promotes access to, or the ability of, information from a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.”

So, then, the audits will involve some pretty subjective judgment calls. And since the FTC is at least somewhat a political body, tech companies must be prepared for each audit to be different — depending on how political moods shift.

To skirt a government crackdown, companies will most likely change their policies before the new law even takes effect. Inevitably, the bureaucratic reviews will take a good chunk of time. Until they’re complete, affected tech companies will be held responsible for all content placed their sites. So online platforms will just be overly skittish about any content that even smells litigious.

That’d be a shame.

After all, Section 230 has shaped an internet culture of free expression, generating opportunities to share enjoyment and creativity — both for income and for sheer fun. A stricter, less user-driven internet would stomp on a myriad of careers and plenty of entertainment that’s meaningful to millions of people.

Once popular online platforms are no longer user-driven and are instead shaped to fit the tastes of government, what would popular online platforms look like? One potential outcome is that users (and, subsequently, advertisers) lose interest in these sites. Another possibility is that media, like commentary and music, will become increasingly dominated by big companies, fundamentally transforming what visitors have come to expect from their favorite websites. Ultimately, for no good reason, the internet will become a lot less viable for entrepreneurs –– and less interesting for everyone else.

Without Section 230, this forced bias would hurt smaller creators in ways that reach far beyond mere copyright issues. For example, YouTube visitors frequent YouTube’s front page to find missed bits from talk show hosts like Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and other major network commentators. Of course, these are all shows prepared under FCC regulations, so YouTube can be pretty sure that videos posted from their production companies are safe to host. But for independent commentary channels, YouTube can’t be nearly as certain, and it’ll be forced to treat them with much heavier scrutiny. Right now, YouTube takes responsibility for removing offensive and dangerous content, but if it’s liable for content as soon as it is posted, it won’t have a choice but to make publishing difficult for independent and otherwise unproven users.

That’s an issue for the lesser-knowns who want to use the platform to become something bigger. YouTube has already leveled complaints against stricter moderation in Europe’s internet market in the name of its little content creators. Thanks to the European Union’s new Copyright Directive, the cost of copyright violations in Europe will force the platform to trust only the major media producers YouTube can be certain hold all the necessary copyrights. So we can be sure the response to strengthened restrictions here in the States would be achingly similar.

At the end of the day, Section 230 is too important to our economy and our culture to recklessly rip away in the name of protecting conservative voices. After all, regulating content to promote political neutrality is a fool’s errand. It will only limit the voices that internet users hear to those of the big guys, and that’s certainly not what conservatives say they want. Section 230 should just remain untouched and return to its benevolent obscurity for the sake of an internet that’s actually free.

This blog post originally was written on September 6, 2019.

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