Opinion | The Justice Department hypes phantom censorship with an attack on Internet platforms’ core protection
September 26, 2020 | internet | No Comments
President Trump’s executive order in May demanding that platforms be punished for alleged censorship of conservatives was an assault on free speech. Attorney General William P. Barr’s follow-up contribution seeking to overhaul the provision of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230 is more of the same. A carve-out stripping protections from “Bad Samaritan” companies that purposefully host illegal material is a useful change. From there, however, the draft takes a pickaxe to the law, chipping away at immunity with overbroad exemptions that will push websites to over-censor, or else encourage them to abandon efforts to police their platforms altogether.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also advocates an ill-advised revocation of Section 230. Yet the Justice Department’s suggested bill is much more insidious. Its misguided attempts to make the Internet safer are window-dressing on the administration’s true object: to bully sites out of enforcing their terms of service against hate, harassment, harmful misinformation and more, and to bully them out of fact-checking the president, in particular. The Justice Department accomplishes this by inserting a provision requiring platforms to moderate content in “good faith,” and therefore without political motivation as a pretext — as judged by politically motivated authorities.
The intricacies of liability shields for technology firms may seem a niche issue to emphasize ahead of a tinderbox election that hardly lacks for controversy. Yet so-called political correctness has long been a popular topic for the incumbent and his supporters. And what happens on social media sites matters perhaps more than ever amid the pandemic. The goal here may not be merely to inspire voters to turn out to the ballot box in droves, furious that a liberal cabal has rigged Twitter against them (a contention unsupported by evidence). The aim may also be to convince the same base that this conspiracy is at work in the crucial period following Nov. 3.
Facebook is already preparing to respond to a phase of uncertainty when ballots have been cast but not all of them counted, insisting that it won’t permit any candidates to claim victory before the results have been certified. The promised measures set up a clash between a candidate who has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and the sites that could check his illiberal impulses. Hyping up phantom censorship today ensures that citizens are primed to cry out against it tomorrow — adding only more kindling to the fire that may be coming.