"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." It's a Republican zinger from the Reagan era that doesn't get much play anymore in the age of Trump. Right-wing populists have little problem with government intervention — pushing for a massive border wall to be built by GOP donors, aid to farmers hurt by President Trump's trade war with China, presidential browbeating of U.S. companies that shutter factories, bigger budget deficits — as long as Washington is intervening for them and against their enemies.
But while the Gipper's one-liner may seem an anachronism in the modern GOP, it is still true that Senator Josh Hawley is from the government and he's here to help. The first-term Missouri Republican wants to strip large internet companies of the sweeping immunity against lawsuits they're granted under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Specifically, Hawley's Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act — introduced on Wednesday — would permit lawsuits over user-generated content unless companies submit to an external audit by the Federal Trade Commission that proves by "clear and convincing evidence" that they do not moderate content "in a politically biased manner."
Laws shouldn't be immune to reconsideration or revision. But there had better be a compelling reason when you're dealing with something like Section 230, this bit in particular: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." As Jeff Koseff, assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy, writes in the new book, "The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet," that seemingly simple provision "created the legal and social framework that we know today."
Without the legal protection that protects companies from the actions of their users and allows them to moderate content — indeed, the law was intended to encourage them to do just that — social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter might not exist today, or at least not in America. And if they didn't, that might be OK with Hawley, who recently wrote that social media is "best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society" and perhaps "we'd be better off if Facebook disappeared."
But it's really the bias issue driving the Section 230 reform effort on the right, as the title of Hawley's bill suggests. Despite a paucity of evidence beyond the stray anecdote, Trumpublicans have persuaded themselves that Big Tech is systematically suppressing conservative speech. Maybe, then, the point of the bill is less about passing legislation so that Big Tech is somehow "neutral" — as determined by a group of political appointees — than chilling current moderation efforts that sometimes hurt Trump-friendly accounts and affirming the conspiratorial grievance politics so widespread on the right.
On the other side, instead of complaining that Big Tech censors too much, Democrats want more of it and think Section 230 should somehow push companies to moderate harder. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently warned tech companies that their legal immunity was "in jeopardy" after Facebook was unwilling to remove a "cheapfake" altered video of her.
Yet neither side has apparently given much thought to what the internet and social media would look like if their reforms were implemented. Decrease moderation and platforms might get overrun by alt-right crazies and conspiracy theorists, such as those recently banned by Facebook. Or perhaps just the opposite: a tightly moderated garden where hardly a disruptive thought is expressed. Koseff would advise a social media company to "take a very hands-off approach to moderation because there is no way to predict in advance whether moderation decisions/policies are ‘neutral.'" But that path might be hard to stick to with powerful politicians regularly pressuring them to remove insulting content that's not advocating illegal action.
Which brings us back to the "nine most terrifying words" joke. It's less a cheap slam against big government than a warning about politicians and bureaucrats who think they know more than they actually do and who give little thought to the risk of unintended consequences from their "helpful" actions. Implementing massive new internet regulation to solve a problem that doesn't seem to actually exist is just the sort of thing the joke was cautioning against.