New Year, same lame talking points.
Scott Cleland’s Jan. 8 commentary repeats the same straw man argument advanced recently by Fox News personality and Daily Caller co-founder Tucker Carlson.
Both falsely accuse The Heritage Foundation of wanting to give technology companies “immunity from liability” and other “special privileges.” Exhibit A, they say, is our report, “Free Enterprise Is the Best Remedy for Online Bias Concerns.”
They grossly mischaracterize the report, claiming that it “deviat[es] from all of Heritage’s long-standing conservative principles.” In fact, it explores the likely impacts of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s bill, Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act (S. 1914). Contrary to the bill’s title, the proposal is a bid to regulate online speech. Our report concludes that it would be “more likely to erode free speech than to protect it.”
Heritage’s report does not state a position on the target of Hawley’s legislation: Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act.
Hawley would end protections currently available to internet service providers under Section 230, which allows them to remove what they deem to be offensive content from their platforms without risk of lawsuits for that moderation.
Cleland makes it sound as though Google, Facebook, and Twitter have wangled “special privileges” for themselves through passage of Section 230. Yet the Communications Decency Act was enacted two years before Google existed and about a decade before Facebook and Twitter were founded.
In the 1990s, lawmakers were fearful that a barrage of lawsuits—many of them frivolous—could stifle the internet’s growth. At the time, then-dominant internet companies CompuServe and Prodigy had faced such legal challenges. Lawmakers hoped that Section 230 would enable service providers to police their platforms without legal harassment.
Rather than rely on this self-policing approach, Hawley wants to empower government officials—in this case, the Federal Trade Commission—to police online speech. If history is a guide, such a move would likely result in more censorship—of conservative voices when liberals are in power, and vice versa.
Under the Hawley bill, appointed commissioners could determine which service providers should retain immunity from civil liability. Their decisions would be made solely on the basis on the commissioners’ assessment of “bias” in the content of political messages posted online.
America does not need government officials authorized to shut down speech on the internet. Such a position flies in the face of the First Amendment and a society free from unwarranted government censorship.
Rather than address our critique of Hawley’s legislation, both Carlson and Cleland accuse Heritage of defending technology companies. That’s simply false. In fact, we’ve repeatedly criticized these companies on a range of issues—from working with communist China to blocking our own content.
Just recently, Google-owned YouTube censored a video produced by The Daily Signal, Heritage’s multimedia news outlet. On our public platforms and in a private meeting with YouTube’s CEO, we made our position abundantly clear: We will not tolerate this type of censorship and will stand side by side with other conservatives experiencing similar challenges.
It should come as no surprise that Heritage supports empowering consumers rather than government to influence the private sector. We are, and have always been, champions of free enterprise and critics of government intervention.
Why not let platform owners choose what content they will and will not allow—and what their customers demand? Do Cleland and Carlson honestly believe government would do it better?
Conservatives have repeatedly shown they can outmaneuver the left on their own—without government intervention. Just as conservatives flourished on talk radio and cable TV when the government stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, so too have conservatives on the internet. The Daily Caller is just one example.
Yes, the internet has fundamentally changed since Section 230 was enacted more than 20 years ago. That’s precisely why The Heritage Foundation is actively debating if the immunity from civil liability is still warranted in any or all circumstances.
We will continue to explore this matter with rigor and integrity, recognizing these issues are complex—and that honest, committed conservatives can disagree on how they should be resolved. Let’s commit to doing so without demeaning or maligning each other in the process.
This piece originally appeared in the Daily Caller