Calls for Big Tech to Act Now on Free Speech

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is expected to meet privately today with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other GOP lawmakers in large part due to significant concerns of anti-conservative bias. Such concerns, long expressed and substantiated by National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and others, are reaching a critical point. Indeed, NRB’s president and executive committee are now calling on Big Tech to show they are fixing their censorship problem by the end of the year, or else the association will begin calling for hearings on their access to a legal shield intended for “Good Samaritans.”

Last week at the Lincoln Initiative’s Reboot 2018 conference in San Francisco, NRB president & CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson participated in a panel discussion titled “Are Tech Companies Silencing Unpopular Voices?” Johnson declared, “They need to fix this quickly… and what I’m saying is: if they don’t do this – by December 31, mind you – we are going to ask Congress to take a look at 230.”

Johnson was referring to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been a key provision for internet companies after its insertion in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Technology interests have vigorously defended this law, most recently in the context of legislation aimed at the prosecution of online enablers of sex trafficking. In addition to protecting internet companies from liability for what users post on their platforms, Section 230 also includes a section facilitating their “Good Samaritan” blocking of offensive content by defending them from lawsuits based on content their moderation efforts may have missed.

While being sure to reiterate NRB’s long-held belief that, ideally, Big Tech companies would gather as an industry to establish their own commonly upheld free speech charter based on First Amendment principles, Johnson brought up Section 230 in the event that the corporations continued to effectively ignore substantiated cries of viewpoint suppression. Johnson suggested that, if they won’t reform themselves, perhaps tech titans no longer need Section 230’s “extra layer of protection” for content moderation – that perhaps for those giants “it’s time to leave the ‘incubator.’” He emphasized that any congressional re-evaluation of Section 230 must be very cautious and use an “exacto knife” approach rather than a bludgeon.

Notably, in addition to NRB and Leader McCarthy, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) also elevated this matter this week. They jointly authored an op-ed in USA Today titled “Google, Twitter and Facebook should evaluate their biases before Congress intervenes.” In it, the two leaders said:

We are challenging all Silicon Valley CEOs to embrace their role as both champions and stewards of a free and fair public square. You should present users with clear, consistent and transparent content management standards — and openly communicate when you update or change your practices. You must also rise to the challenge of quickly responding to violent threats. This will restore trust that users can use these platforms without fear of being victims of violence, or skepticism that what they are seeing is filtered through an ideological lens. It won’t be easy, and we will all be watching, but the future of civil discourse and the public square depends upon it.

Notably, after a Capitol Hill hearing on this matter featuring Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey earlier this month, NRB president Johnson again re-emphasized the ideal of an industry-created free speech charter. He warned, “It may or may not be intentional, but there is well-documented censorship, and that cannot be ignored forever by the people’s representatives in Congress.”

“We need to be very careful not to stifle innovation or, worse, to open the door to Big Brother or an internet Fairness Doctrine. However, light touch doesn’t mean no touch,” he said.

NRB’s Internet Freedom Watch initiative shows examples of viewpoint censorship in a timeline dating back to Apple’s 2010 discrimination against the late Chuck Colson’s Manhattan Declaration app. The NRB Board of Directors, a body of approximately 100 key leaders among Christian communicators, this year approved a resolution urging a “light touch” on the internet by the U.S. government, but also urges tech giants “to honor First Amendment values as refined by centuries of American jurisprudence and to faithfully apply those principles in their policies and practices.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: September 28, 2018

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