As major social media companies ban Trump from their platforms over inciting violence, it could mean more challenges to Section 230 and more extremists going to free speech platforms.
Facebook and Twitter made the decision this week to ban Donald Trump from their platforms, where the President had the largest followings. The companies stated that they made the decisions after they determined there was the risk of a further incitement of violence. The moves were a forceful repudiation of the President after years of Trump using both platforms to spread lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Shortly after the ban took place, prominent Republicans called for a repeal of Section 230, stating that Big Tech should be on the same footing as other American companies. The decisions made by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies were not made lightly but may bring greater challenges as far-right Republicans look for other social media platforms.
Section 230 is a piece of internet legislation that shields website publishers from liability against third-party content. It became law in 1996 when the internet was still in its infancy but has increasingly come under fire in recent years as social media companies are used by more extremist groups to incite violence. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore harmful users. Throughout 2020, particularly in May and December, Trump tried to change the legislation so that it didn’t provide as much protection to these companies. Arguing that it was silencing freedom of speech, newer social media companies have taken advantage of the President’s rhetoric and came up with “freedom of speech” platforms for Trump’s users.
Parler, founded in 2018, describes itself as a free speech social network. In recent months, it has become a popular destination for conservatives who believe that their freedom of speech is being blocked by Big Tech.
Not the first of its kind, it has picked up considerable attention as prominent Republicans such as Ted Cruz have joined the platform in recent months. Companies like these pride themselves on allowing their users to moderate the content and deem what should and shouldn’t be on the platform. The concern that comes with allowing your users to pick and chose what is considered safe on a website is the risk that it isn’t and breeds violence.
Just this week, Apple and Google found that Parler wasn’t moderating its users enough and that the lack of enforcement made the company partially responsible for the attack that happened at the Capitol on January 6th. Google pulled the app from its store citing that it did not enforce its moderation policies and Apple gave the company 24 hours to make changes or else it would be removed. Should Big Tech be the ones calling the shots here?
MIT Technology Review wrote an opinion piece entitled Users, not tech executives, should decide what constitutes free speech online where they outline how tech companies aren’t that great at moderating speech either.
Though there are certainly short-term benefits — and plenty of satisfaction — to be had from banning Trump, the decision (and those that came before it) raise more foundational questions about speech. Who should have the right to decide what we can and can’t say? What does it mean when a corporation can censor a government official?
Parler is also protected by Section 230, so should Apple and Google be allowed to tell another company that its moderation policies are not enough? Big Tech silencing smaller companies may seem good in the short term, but limits the options users have which inadvertently gives more power to Big Tech.
Legislators should not get rid of Section 230 but rather focus their efforts on competition within the social media and technology space. Apple and Google shouldn’t be able to pull a company from their app stores and ruin it. Just as Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be able to ban a user from their platforms and silence them. Section 230 should remain so that companies are able to grow an audience without fear of being wiped out by litigation. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are powerful enough to defend themselves against most, if not all, litigation threw their way. Smaller social companies could not afford it.
Repealing Section 230 would be anticompetitive and guarantee that Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google only grow stronger. Standards should be established for companies to follow. Despite what Republicans and some Democrats may think, there is nothing requiring a company from being neutral, nor should there have to be. Companies should follow a set of standards and legislators should focus their attention in the coming months on fostering solutions that encourage more competition. Thought should not be monitored by a handful of companies and none of us should be quick to celebrate the unilateral moves that effectively silenced someone. Standards and competition will make for better companies and users.