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When ‘Fairness’ Becomes Censorship

by Billy Easley II Read Profile arrow_right_alt

On April 10, 2018, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz grilled Facebook Chairman and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg over the social media platform’s content moderation policies. Citing examples of Facebook censoring pro-conservative accounts and articles, Sen. Cruz explained to Zuckerberg, “to a great many Americans, that appears to be a pervasive pattern of political bias.”

Sen. Ted Cruz then pressed the Facebook chairman on whether his organization was a “neutral public forum,” arguing that neutrality is necessary to enjoy the protections guaranteed by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

A willingness to consider modifying Section 230 to weaken protections enjoyed by social media platforms is bipartisan. In a Recode Decode podcast episode released on April 11, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opined that “230 is a gift to them [the tech companies], and I don’t think they are treating it with the respect that they should.” She added, “For the privilege of 230, there has to be a bigger sense of responsibility on it, and it is not out of the question that that could be removed.”

Whether or not you agree with claims that American tech companies have attempted to mitigate conservative opinions, history shows that ham-fisted attempts by government to enforce “fairness” in matters of speech usually result in less freedom for all.

Legislation like the Radio Act of 1927 gave the government the power to enforce “fairness,” such as giving “equal time” to both sides of a political issue. It sounded good in theory. In practice, the result was that radio stations with unusual or nonstandard content were deemed too extreme by government regulators and denied licenses to operate. In the pursuit of “fairness,” dissenting voices were silenced.

The rules led to government-sanctioned monopolies and a paucity of viewpoint diversity in the telecommunications industry. Only when deregulation came to the industry did we begin to see a diverse flowering of networks across the political spectrum, from C-SPAN to CNN, from Fox News to MSNBC.

What many of our elected officials are forgetting is that Section 230 is what made the internet what it is today: an open space conducive to innovation. Wired has gone so far as to refer to the law as “sacred.” Since internet platforms can host user-generated content without fear of prosecution, millions of people, conservatives included, can post content on and enjoy sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon and Airbnb.

Section 230 acknowledged a basic reality: that if these sites could be sued for what their users said or did or were policed for their neutrality, they would simply choose not to allow content that might offend people. That would silence those deviating from the straight and narrow – converting the free and open internet into a vast wastelandof ordinary.

Users are (and should be) responsible for their actions online. Section 230, therefore, strikes a balance: it provides sites limited protection from liability so long as they comply with all federal law.

Few if any companies could dedicate the resources necessary to police all speech on their sites. Smaller, start-up platforms would have a nearly impossible challenge in breaking into the industry. 

There are legitimate concerns about internet privacy, cyber-bullying, and overall civility. Government coercion, however, is not the answer to raising the level of discourse or ensuring fairness. For anyone tempted by the siren song of speech controls on the internet, I’d ask you to consider this: Would you want your political opponents deciding who gets to say what on social media?

The internet as we’ve known it has been the greatest boon to free expression in our lifetimes, for people of all political persuasions. When considering how best to ensure that freedom, our elected representatives should consider Thomas Jefferson’s observation: “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.”

Billy Easley II is a senior tech policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.

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