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A ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the Internet Could Backfire on Conservatives

In their efforts to enhance their freedoms, conservatives could create an internet that restricts them more than ever before.

Image credit: Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

Lawmakers are trying to change the internet completely. They want to institute a “Fairness Doctrine,” weaponizing it to expose Big Tech companies to liability if they’re not “politically neutral.” 

They might succeed, too—so we need to understand what we’re getting into.

There are over 4 billion snaps sent every day on Snapchat. There are roughly one million links shared on Facebook every 20 minutes. There are over 9,000 tweets sent every second—a day’s worth of tweets could write a 10 million page book. And YouTube has 300 hours of video uploaded to the platform every minute, which is the equivalent of watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy’s extended editions nearly 27 times. 

This unbelievable volume of data flowing freely online was made possible by a foundational US policy position established in law in 1996 through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This crucial part of the law, what author Jeff Kosseff calls “the twenty-six words that created the internet,” states that “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.” Translation: Twitter can’t be held liable for tweets from its users. The United States benefited immensely from this hands-off approach to the internet, becoming the global hub of creation, innovation, and human ingenuity. 

But in recent years, Section 230 has come under attack from both sides of the political aisle, opening the door to potentially revoking or changing the very thing responsible for so much American prosperity.

President Trump, after his conflict with Twitter for the company’s use of a warning label on his tweets, called for Congress and the DOJ to address the law. Senator Josh Hawley recently unveiled proposed changes, and the DOJ released a white paper with recommendations. Enacting either of these proposals would impact a wide range of industries. 

Hawley’s proposal would require companies to list and detail their content moderation policies in order to qualify for protection of Section 230, a measure that would impede companies’ abilities to adapt to a constantly changing online landscape. The proposal would also require companies to pledge to operate in “good faith,” which would open the door to a slew of user lawsuits. Users who doubt the company was acting in “good faith,” could sue for up to $5,000 plus attorney’s fees. Trial lawyers seeing this proposal are likely drooling at yet another avenue to exercise frivolous lawsuits to milk companies for cash. 

The DOJ’s proposal isn’t much better. In fact, in some ways it is more frightening. It seeks to carve out exceptions to Section 230 for content that violates federal law and for platforms where criminal content is found but not taken down in a reasonable timeframe. But what is the definition of a “reasonable timeframe?” Such ambiguity is problematic. Meanwhile, content that violates federal law is the very thing Section 230 was crafted to tackle, by incentivizing platforms to be proactive in removing illegal content.

The driving force for conservatives’ desire to change this law is really just perceived bias among tech platforms against conservative voices. Approximately 60 percent of Republicans believe there’s a bias against conservatives on social media platforms. But according to CrowdTangle, a data firm owned by Facebook with access to its data, they’re wrong.

In the last month, conservative voices performed strongly on Facebook—with Ben Shapiro’s page accounting for 29 percent of all interactions on political pages, and Breibart collecting 23 percent. Meanwhile, Fox News leads all US news organizations with 13 percent of all interactions on Facebook over the last month. A separate study conducted by Media Matters for America found similar results, with right-leaning pages slightly outperforming their liberal counterparts. 

Considering the sheer volume of content posted online, it’s impressive that social media companies are able to proactively remove as much pervasive content as they do, and that is empowered because of Section 230 protections.

But if Hawley or the DOJ have their way, these companies may respond by pulling more posts than they already do. That’s certainly bad news for anyone who wants more free speech.

In their efforts to enhance their freedoms, conservatives could create an internet that restricts them more than ever before. It’s crucial to try to retain the internet responsible for so many improvements in American life, like access to information and the ability to connect with people we care about around the world. That’s not something we should give up just because some politicians think they’re solving a problem—one they’re simply bound to make worse.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that an average of 3.5 billion snaps were sent every day. New data show that it is closer toward 4 billion snaps sent every day.]

  • James Czerniawski is the Tech and Innovation Policy Analyst with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah, and a Young-Voices associate contributor. His work has been featured in The National Interest, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Washington Examiner, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.