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Social Media Censorship? Governments Weigh the Options

The United States may be going in the opposite direction from other Western countries

Senator Josh Hawley tabled a controversial bill in the U.S. Senate this week:

Hawley’s bill, the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, seeks to discourage recent Big Tech efforts to censor political ideas. It does this by amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which currently offers Big Tech companies immunity from legal liability for content posted on their platforms. While this immunity is indeed a sweetheart deal for the largest Big Tech corporations, it’s also a common sense regulation. Content curators like newspapers and private websites can directly control the type of content they allow to be viewed by users of their platforms, and thus bear some legal responsibility for what they publish. Open platforms thrive by allowing users to independently contribute content in real time. In this way, open platforms resemble the public square, and the free discussion of politics that takes place on these platforms resembles an open marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, many of these “open platforms” enjoying Section 230 immunity have begun to act as content curators, deplatforming conservatives and censoring content that flies in the face of Silicon Valley political orthodoxy. Hawley’s bill amends Section 230 to clarify the distinction between platform and curator and ensure that Big Tech companies demonstrate that they are not unfairly promoting one political ideology over another through rigged algorithms or biased moderation practices.

Jon Schweppe, “Hawley Defends the Public Square” at First Things
Senator Josh Hawley

At least one detractor sees the bill as securing the opposite of its stated goals:

In reality, it’s a bill that would inject the federal government directly into the private social-media business and grant it enormous power over social-media content. It would enable public censorship in the name of limiting private control.

David French, “Josh Hawley’s Internet Censorship Bill Is an Unwise, Unconstitutional Mess” at National Review

Accusations of big social media bias and censorship have included confirmed search engine bias (Google Search), deleting historical footage used for teaching purposes (for example Nazi archives at YouTube), and bans on non-conforming expert opinion (Twitter).

An underlying issue is that new near-monopoly social media grew up so fast that their rights and obligations have never been systematically defined.

Are they the new “telephone company” (a public utility)? In that case, because ease of communication is considered a public benefit, they can only refuse to provide service under stringent rules.

Are they the new “newspaper” (various competing publishers, protected by free speech laws)? The publisher must take responsibility for what is published. The problem is, nothing about the format of social media resembles the print publisher of old, whose staff curated the books, articles, and letters published. That format would be impossible. Grabbing the excuse “We’re publishers so we can refuse to publish what we don’t agree with!” misrepresents the true nature of the new relationships.

Or are they a third model, the coffee shop? On this model, the proprietor is not expected to approve of all conversations at the tables. But under what circumstances is she entitled to ask patrons to leave if she considers their views or comportment offensive?

It doesn’t help that big social media are free to the user because the companies are selling advertising, not services. The current combination of a broad, open society with free near-total social media monopolies makes it hard to determine where these media fit into a free society.

Traditionally, there were conversations people could have in pool halls that they did not have in the sixth-floor tea room of a fashionable department store. But then no one had a monopoly on all beverages either; nor were the beverages free.

One likely outcome is that big social media will welcome an opportunity to avoid difficult issues by tacitly encouraging strict censorship of national platforms, along the lines a government prefers (the China model, if you like).

Something like that is happening in Canada, to judge from a recent meeting at the House of Commons:

Yesterday, the justice committee tabled its report on “online hate” in Canada’s parliament…

Once you strip away the mumbo jumbo bureaucrat-speak in there, it means the Canadian Liberals wish not only to revive section 13 from the dead, but to give it untold powers to force social media companies to purge online speech from whomever the government deems the hatemongers du jour.

This is apparent in another recommendation, that lawmakers “establish requirements for online platforms and Internet service providers with regards to how they monitor and address incidents of hate speech, and the need to remove all posts that would constitute online hatred in a timely manner.”

Of course there’s no provided definition for what “hate speech” is in the context of this desired law. Just a promise to figure it out later. Andrew Lawton, “Canada vs. Free Speech” at Mark Steyn

The history of controversial Section 13, repealed in 2013, would not warrant optimism on that score.

What generally happened in Canada was that Human Rights Commissions acted on complaints, whether most members of the public would deem them justifiable or not. In the best-known case, commentator Mark Steyn fought charges for years under Section 13 for an article in Maclean’s Magazine (2006), about demographic shifts in Canada, that most readers struggled to find offensive. But it upset some people who had the ready ear of the HRC.

I was present at the meeting Lawton describes (June 4, 2019). It seemed quite clear that official Canada, like official Britain and New Zealand, is eager to go in the opposite direction to that recommended by Sen. Hawley. They would like to work with big social media companies to control disapproved speech, with the details to be addressed as the complaints come in.

The only certainty is further controversy.

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Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Social Media Censorship? Governments Weigh the Options