American politicians on both sides of the aisle are working through how to cope with the massive influence of modern technology companies. Republicans of a populist persuasion have called for antitrust efforts against Big Tech. On the left, Amy Klobuchar has just introduced legislation designed to forcibly stop the spread of alleged COVID-19 misinformation. Klobuchar’s intention to coerce social-media platforms for political purposes is a perfect example of how government meddling in Big Tech affairs threatens free information.
Michael Brendan Dougherty aptly explained the societal problems Klobuchar’s bill would cause, namely a deterioration of trust with extant authorities and a willingness to cover up problematic narratives. However, it is worthwhile to discuss how Klobuchar and her co-sponsor, Senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, plan to quash ideas they deem unacceptable. The bill would create a carveout in Section 230 for health misinformation relating to an “existing public health emergency.”
Section 230 is part of an Internet law that protects social-media companies from being responsible for the content they host on their platform. The idea is that content platforms are only responsible for hosting users, not for policing their behavior. The Wall Street Journal reports on the new bill, writing:
Should the bill become law—which is far from certain—the Health and Human Services Department would face the task of issuing guidance related to whether the internet posts at issue constitute health misinformation.
If HHS determines that they do, the platforms would be more vulnerable to litigation accusing them of spreading misinformation because they would no longer have the broad protections against liability for user-generated content under Section 230.
The Journal is right in saying this bill has a long way to go in Congress; it currently has no Republican support. However, Klobuchar is not alone in trying to force Big Tech to censor certain speech. The president of the United States himself said that Facebook was “killing people” because it hosts “misinformation” about vaccines. This politically charged rhetoric isn’t likely to simmer down and indicates how incendiary the political fight over online information will become the more politicians get involved in Big Tech.
Even left-wing advocates are concerned that Klobuchar has gone too far. The Journal reports that the Chamber of Progress, a left-wing policy group, came out against the bill, saying:
“We all want less misinformation online, but this approach would turn future Republican presidents into the speech police,” Chamber of Progress Chief Executive Adam Kovacevich said in a statement. “Democrats would regret this.”
Those on the trustbusting right often speak about gutting Section 230 in order to free our discourse. The argument often invokes the spirit of the First Amendment. However, the text of the First Amendment also grants the press liberty from government censorship. We should not be naïve about what Klobachar and Biden are looking to do if Section 230 is dropped. When Klobuchar and Biden talk of censoring “misinformation,” they are telling the American public that if Big Tech companies are treated like publishers, they do not intend on allowing a free press.
The new bill introduced to censor accounts based on emergency health information should worry all Americans. However, the method they are going about it should also especially concern antitrust advocates who are considering doing away with Section 230 altogether. The government shouldn’t meddle with private publishers and most certainly has no business censoring platforms. If a free exchange of information is the goal, keeping politicians from regulating the platforms, publishers, and users is the solution.