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July 3 2019

Washington Shouldn’t Micromanage the Internet

by Patrice Lee Onwuka

Conservatives on social media face a serious battle to be heard freely. Anecdotally, there is evidence that individuals, think tanks, and advocacy groups on the right experience unequal treatment by online companies such as their posts being deleted or hidden and their accounts being temporarily and even permanently banned. 

Online companies argue that they are applying their rules evenly. Conservatives can make a good case for why they don't believe this. 

Part of the problem is that philosophical diversity is lacking in Silicon Valley and the moderators of content can intentionally or unintentionally allow political biases to color how they view user content. 

A looming question is what to do about it?

Republican Senator Josh Hawley thinks he has a solution: greater regulation.

Recently, he introduced legislation that would require internet companies to prove they are politically "neutral" when moderating user-generated content on their websites by getting Federal Trade Commission certification every two years. If they don't, they face civil and criminal liability for content on their platforms, a protection granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

The FTC would, in essence, be micromanaging the decisions of tech platforms in determining an abstract standard of political “neutrality.” 

This is an expansion of big government and federal authority over the internet. Something every American should be concerned about. 

Lawmakers on the left and the right and tech policy experts are understandably united in opposition to Hawley’s bill:

Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) said in a Twitter response:

This legislation is a sweetheart deal for Big Government. It empowers the one entity that should have no say over our speech to regulate and influence what we say online.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.), the original author of Section 230, tweeted a thread that dismantles the proposal:

.@HawleyMO's bill to require government oversight of online speech will turn the federal government into Speech Police, flagrantly violating the First Amendment. This bill would force every platform to become 4chan or 8chan rather than maintain some basic level of decency.

Daphne Keller, director of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, tweeted:

This is wacky in a dozen little ways and in one huge way: It assumes there is such a thing as 'political neutrality' and that the FTC can define and enforce what that is.

Another major concern, this bill could be chilling to free speech. The FTC could be used as a tool for partisan harassment or retribution against political enemies.

David French made this point in a salient explanation of the problems with this bill:

One of the best ways to evaluate the merits of legislation is to ask yourself whether the bill would still seem wise if the power you give the government were to end up in the hands of your political opponents. Is Hawley striking a blow for freedom if he ends up handing oversight of Facebook’s political content to Bernie Sanders? I think not.

French advocates for persuading private tech companies to take First Amendment free speech seriously, but not using government to coerce them to do so. Is this the best solution? Perhaps it will work for some companies. 

Greater competition from new platforms and user pressure could go a long way as well.

There’s room for other new ideas in addressing this problem, but greater Washington micromanagement and control is not one of them. 





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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