Big Tech: Rights without responsibility
Big Tech: Rights without responsibility

Facebook and other social media platforms want it both ways when it comes to the First Amendment.

They want to claim that their free speech is violated when state governments try to limit Big Tech’s power to regulate content. These platforms want similar protections to newspapers, which can decide what to publish free from government interference.

But unlike newspapers, Big Tech doesn’t want to be held legally responsible for what’s posted on its sites. The platforms say they’re like phone companies that just offer people a way to express their opinions.

So what is it? Are they a utility or a content provider? And if both, who gets to decide what they are at any given time?

This is the confusing and contradictory scenario the U.S. Supreme Court is entering into with its case challenging Florida and Texas laws designed to limit the extent of censorship by social media platforms.

Both Republican-controlled states believe that most social media platforms have a liberal bias and seek to silence conservative views and ideas. They particularly protested the decision by Facebook and Twitter (now known as X) to shut down Donald Trump’s accounts because of his inflammatory posts related to the January 6, 2021 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol.

However, these states’ objections are only valid if these platforms are purely utilities and not media companies, although their business models suggest that they are more likely to be the latter than the former.

Unlike a phone company, which always earns the same amount for providing a service regardless of the message being conveyed, social media companies earn based on the substance of the content posted on their platforms. The more provocative or sensational the content, the more attention it attracts. The more attention it attracts, the further the platforms’ algorithms spread it, while simultaneously making money by selling advertising to that attention.

These platforms are not content neutral. They may not have a political bias, as the governors of Florida and Texas claim, but they definitely have an economic bias. The content with the greatest advertising potential gets the most exposure, within the bounds of decency that are often not consistently maintained.

Congress could clear up this confusion—and level the playing field between social and traditional media—by repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This law provides a shield for internet platforms that allows them to profit from the content of others without being held responsible for it.

Without Section 230, Facebook, TikTok, X and the like would have the freedom to decide what to post, but also a legal duty to ensure that the content posted is not defamatory. They could censor at will, but would also be held accountable if they did not exercise that authority on false information that caused real harm.

That would be fair to everyone and at the same time clean up the cesspool that social media can sometimes degenerate into. Why is that not a good idea after almost 30 years of well-documented damage caused by Paragraph 230?

By Aurora