Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Access to social media versus the rights of private companies

Eugene Volokh has an interesting post over on Reason about Section 230 and what it actually means for "viewpoint" censorship.   This is an area that I have struggled to wrap my mind around.  I am a big fan of the rights of individuals and corporations to run their affairs the way they want to run them.  There is clearly a serious conspiracy to block some fairly mainstream viewpoints completely, however.  Just consider the number of conservatives who have had their access restricted, not only to social media but website hosting, internet access, and banking.  Not just fringe groups like Stormfront but mainstream outlets like Prager University.  Meanwhile anti-American and/or leftist groups (the Iranian Ayatollah, for example) seem to have pretty unfettered access.  

Volokh suggests that the original intent of Section 230 was to restrict liability to internet companies while allowing them to censor content that was "objectionable", not from a viewpoint but rather from a decency standpoint.  The relevant portion is:

obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable

He points out that "otherwise objectionable" referred to material covered by the Communications Decency Act, not "stuff we don't agree with".   I'll let you read the article for more detail but it makes a lot of sense to me as I try to square the circle regarding how far we let a few big firms go in controlling access to social communications.


I also thought that this post, from the comments, made a whole lot of sense in breaking down the basic issue that I see regarding Section 230 (Aside: if you are a regular reader of the comments on reason.com you might have noticed that it very quickly devolves into sniping, but in this case the discussion has very much been focused and on topic).  Bold added by me:

  1. They key aspects are this.

    1. Typically a publisher had the right to say whatever they wanted. They also had responsibility for what was said. So, if something was libelous, they could be sued. If the publisher was large enough to have decent circulation, and they published something libelous, they would be sued.

    2. Individuals also have the right to say whatever they want. They also have responsibility. Often however, it doesn’t make sense to sue them for libel, as they don’t have the funds to cover court costs.

    3. With a large “publisher” like Twitter for example, there’s a paradigm shift. Because of section 230, they cannot be liable for items people write. So, there can be libelous accusations on Twitter, but Twitter can’t be sued. Only the individual can, if they can be identified. And often it’s not worth it. This creates a skew, but still it’s even handed.

    4. With the selective censorship on Twitter however, Twitter can ensure that libelous or misleading content they don’t like is eliminated, while libelous or misleading content they DO like is kept. This creates a skew where Twitter can effectively “lie” using the power of a large publisher to reach a large audience. Meanwhile lies Twitter doesn’t like are eliminated. This is the issue.

1 comment:

John Wilder said...

Yes. At some point, Twitter and Facebook become utilities, subject to regulation for the public good.