We know Google can’t be evil, because it says it’s not, and that’s how reality works now. But what about stupid?
I’m about as big a supporter of Section 230 as you’ll find on the right. In my view, the provision is among the best things that Congress has done in the last three decades. It is well-conceived, well-implemented, practically necessary, and ultimately conservative. Strip away all the rhetoric, and you’ll find that Section 230 is little more than a congressionally designed routing mechanism, the purpose of which is to ensure that speakers can be held liable for their own words, but not for the words of others. To abolish, or strictly limit, Section 230 would be to undermine this principle and, thereby, to misallocate responsibility for mistakes.
Google agrees with me on this, as it has repeatedly made clear. Or, at least, it agrees with me when it suits it. Here is Google explaining its advertising policy yesterday, in the course of explaining why it threatened to pull ads from The Federalist:
Our policies do not allow ads to run against dangerous or derogatory content, which includes comments on sites, and we offer guidance and best practices to publishers on how to comply. https://t.co/zPO669Yd0p
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) June 16, 2020
Legally, this policy has nothing to do with Section 230, and nor is it inconsistent with it. Under the law, Google can enjoy all of its Section 230 protections while deciding which companies it will permit to use its advertising platform and which it will prohibit. In statutory terms, the two questions are unrelated — and they should be.
But morally and intellectually? This is a gift to the enemies of Section 230. If Section 230 survives, it will be because the public continues to buy the argument that it is unfair to hold people accountable for comments that they neither made nor approved — an argument that is going be pretty hard for Google to make if it is removing advertising revenue from organizations based on the contents of their comments sections. Essentially, what Google said yesterday is that (1) it would be ridiculous for it to be held liable for the bad behavior of third-party commenters on YouTube and its other properties because it can’t possibly know who is commenting or what they are saying, and that (2) it does not accept any such argument when making decisions that affect everyone else.
Obviously, this matters. If it is silly and impractical to expect Google to take responsibility for its commenters, then it is also silly and impractical to expect The Federalist to take responsibility for its commenters. Sure, under existing law, Google can act in this hypocritical way. But it cannot do so without undermining the core argument in favor of that existing law. In the coming years, it is going to need all of the ammunition it can marshal in favor of retaining the status quo. Is it really worth weakening its case in order to inflict pain upon a website that has done nothing more egregious than publish views that its employees and their friends happen to dislike?