from the this-is-not-a-both-sides-issue dept
The Federalist Society this week released an interesting and well-produced video all about the Section 230 debate. Whatever you might think about the Federalist Society, the video is worth watching. The video does not take a position on 230 but basically presents it as if there are two equally competing visions of 230 — one in which it’s good and one in which it’s a problem. And if you just watch the video, you might think that this is because there are just disagreements about how 230 works and the impact it has on speech online. But that’s only because one side of the debate is completely making shit up and the other is being accurate.
In this case, the person making up shit about 230 is… Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz has been lying about Section 230 for years. Indeed, I think we can trace most of the blatant falsehoods about 230 that seem to come from Republicans to Ted Cruz. It seems like 3 years ago, Cruz decided that it would be a fun culture war thing to “attack big tech” and lying about 230 seemed like the easiest way to do so. Other politicians (most notably Josh Hawley) have since followed him down that path, but it’s Cruz who seems to be patient zero of the GOP’s “making shit up about 230.” Of course, what’s perhaps most ironic is that everything that Cruz has been falsely saying about 230 conflicts directly with the other stuff he made up about net neutrality back when that fight was on.
Back in 2014, when the FCC finally put in place reasonable net neutrality rules, Cruz flipped out and insisted that simple rules against throttling or blocking access to websites was the government taking over the internet. Now, with 230, he insists (falsely) that 230 had some built in neutrality requirement, and he’s mad that it’s no longer there. He’s wrong on… all of this.
Let’s dig in:
Who in their right mind would want all of political discourse in America governed by a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires? With unfettered power to silence anyone. That’s what we have now and I think it threatens our elections, it threatens our democracy, and it threatens free speech in a way we’ve never seen before in our democracy.
Oh come on. First of all, pre-internet, the vast majority of people had no outlet for them to speak to the vast majority of other Americans (or people around the globe). They could only speak to people around them, and that was an extremely limited audience. Today, the internet has enabled people to speak to tons of people across a wide variety of platforms or — even better, to set up your own website and communicate to whatever audience you can attract. The idea that a few popular sites have “unfettered power to silence anyone” is ridiculous. First of all, they can’t silence people. They can only refuse them service on their platforms. And the internet is much bigger than those platforms.
Second, they have strong incentives not to just randomly silence people and really are not doing so. While they sometimes make mistakes, it’s not like they’re suddenly deciding that idiots like Ted Cruz can’t lie to the American public and create bogus culture wars. Hell, this video is… hosted on YouTube. Are there cases where these sites have over moderated content that they probably should not have? Sure, absolutely. But there remain many other options out there, and the idea that a few sites having moderation policies Ted Cruz doesn’t like is in no way a “threat to free speech.” And, it most certainly is not a historic threat the way Cruz presents it.
Again, compare this to what we had before. Before people had no significant tools to get their speech out there. If you wanted to speak to a wide audience, you were immediately limited by a bunch of giant gatekeepers who suppressed way more speech than any internet platform ever has. You needed to get a newspaper publisher, book publisher, or TV or radio station to agree to allow you to speak, and they rejected nearly all such efforts. They only allowed through a tiny fraction of those who wished to be published or put on the air.
The change today is massive. But if we’re talking about the power of big companies to silence speech, we’re in a fundamentally different world today where the primary purpose of many of these companies is enabling the vast majority of people to be able to speak to wider audiences. The old systems were focused on just allowing through a tiny minority of people to speak. We’re currently in amazing times for freedom of speech, and the fact that a few platforms don’t want assholes and disinformation merchants is not an attack on free speech.
Later Cruz does this misleading garbage thing where he says that the big tech companies have refused to tell him how many Republican candidates for office have had their content “blocked, shadowbanned, or restricted.” He insists that there is a clear number “an integer” that these companies know and refuse to tell him and “that unchecked power is dangerous.”
Except that entire statement is garbage. First of all, “shadowbanning” is not a defined thing, and most companies don’t do anything that can be reasonably defined as “shadowbanning” or “throttling.” But all of these platforms do have algorithms that suggest content to users, and they may rank certain content higher than others, because the algorithms believe users are more likely to want to see some content, and less likely to see other content. Is having the algorithm decide that one politician’s content is less interesting than another’s… is that “shadowbanning”? Is that “throttling”? Who the fuck knows? That’s why Cruz’s question is so disingenuous. He’s asking an unanswerable question, and then pretending that when companies don’t answer a question that can’t be answered that they’re dodging the issue.
And, no, that power is not “unchecked.” Remember when Ted Cruz was a Republican who pretended to believe in the market? If these companies were really terrible at all of this, then that’s an opportunity for alternatives to spring up. Or it’s a reason for users to stop using the platforms. Or for advertisers to go elsewhere. There are all sorts of market incentives for these companies to be better. Cruz is just making shit up again.
Right now, Section 230 is part of how Congress continues to protect these monopolies that are abusing their power and trying to silence you.
Oh come on. Section 230 protects everyone online. It’s got nothing to do with “monopolies” (and just the fact he is referring to multiple companies as monopolies should make you question if he knows what the word monopoly means). And, no, they’re not trying to “silence you.” They’re trying to balance a ton of competing interests, including stopping spam, harassment, abuse, and disinformation that is creating larger societal problems that cynical opportunist politicians like Ted Cruz want to brush under the rug or deny.
The question of what to do about big tech censorship is a difficult question. I will readily concede that as a policy matter, that is not easy to solve. Nobody in their right mind wants to see a federal government speech police.
And here he is trying to have it both ways, because everything else he says is demanding exactly that. Having the federal government force websites to host some speech while removing some other speech. But Cruz wants to have it both ways. Because he’s lying.
But it’s no longer the case that tech companies are these tiny little startups. It’s no longer the case that they’re a couple of kids starting something in their college dorm room.
Uh, there are still tons of startups, including started by kids in their dorm rooms that are protected by 230.
So it then becomes a thorny problem. How do you solve this blatant censorship and bias coming from Silicon Valley. First, which we’re talking about right now, is repealing or modifying Section 230. Eliminating the special immunity from liability that big tech gets that was based on the belief that they would be neutral public forum. They’ve abandoned that promise. They’ve decided that they’re not neutral. They’re partisan, they will silence your views if they disagree with them.
Everything he says here is hogwash. First, the small lie: Section 230 is not about “big tech.” It protects small sites and users as well. It protects Ted Cruz when he retweets something or when he forwards an email.
Then the big lie: the idea that 230 was premised on “neutrality.” While the video later does show Chris Cox — who wrote Section 230 — debunking this myth, it’s much later in the video and people watching it might not even realize that he’s basically calling out Cruz as a blatant liar. Section 230 was never based on the idea of any website being “a neutral public forum.” As Cox says later, how would that even make any sense? No one would expect, say, the Republican National Committee to have to host speech promoting Democrats.
The entire point of Section 230 was to allow websites to moderate how they saw fit for the community they wanted to have on their website. It’s why we see so many different websites with so many different approaches. Because no one wants or needs a one-size-fits-all approach. So, if websites wanted to be biased, that’s exactly what 230 was designed to support. So no site “broke” any promise, because no promise was made.
And finally, it’s bullshit that any of the big companies are “partisan” in their moderation. They’re not banning people for their political views. They’re banning them when they’re spewing disinformation or harassment in a way that makes it difficult for others using the site as well. The only site I’ve seen admit to being “partisan” was Parler, whose former CEO bragged to reporters about banning “leftists.” I didn’t see Cruz complain about that.
I think there should be strong incentive in federal law for the big companies to go back to being neutral public fora. They know how to do that. They did that for years. Because if they silence anyone who disagrees with the leftwing orthodoxy we’ll only hear one view.
Oh come on. Again, they were never “neutral public fora.” They have always had content moderation policies, removing spam and harassment — and things they were legally required to remove, such as copyright infringement and child sexual abuse material.
And, again, remember that the one regulation we did have about making a part of the internet “neutral” resulted in Cruz himself screaming about how it was “Obamacare for the internet” and “the government takeover of the internet.” Ted Cruz is a lying fucking hypocrite.
Oh, and there is no site out there that is silencing “anyone who disagrees with leftwing orthodoxy.” Again, Ted Cruz — who clearly disagrees with leftwing orthodoxy — is still on all these platforms. This video is hosted by YouTube. Cruz is just culture warrioring, by lying to you.
That’s the world of big tech, but it’s even worse because it’s 3 or 4 billionaires in Silicon Valley deciding what you get to hear, what you get to say, what you get to know. That is an incredible danger to our Constitution, to our Bill of Rights, and to our democracy.
Again, no. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are mostly about limiting what Congress can do. Private companies exercising editorial discretion on their platforms is actually protected by the Bill of Rights.
I’m not sure there was a single thing in this entire video that came out of Ted Cruz’s mouth that was anywhere near truth. It was all cynical bullshit that was not only ridiculous and wrong, but was designed to mislead people. I know the Federalist Society wants to present “both sides” of this issue, but how do you do that when the people you choose have no compunction about just flat out lying?