Big Tech Feeling Pressure on Censorship Concerns

NRB | March 22, 2019 | Advocacy

Since NRB launched Internet Freedom Watch in 2017 to highlight and substantiate the problem of online censorship of Christian and conservative viewpoints, Silicon Valley has faced increasing government scrutiny. In addition to a series of high-profile congressional hearings last year, William Barr, who is now U.S. Attorney General, signaled to senators in January that he is interested in taking a closer look at “huge behemoths” in the tech industry. Now tech titans are finding themselves under growing pressure from the President of the United States himself.

During a press conference this week with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President Trump said:

You’ve heard the same complaints. And it seems to be if they’re conservative, if they’re Republicans, if they’re in a certain group, there’s discrimination and big discrimination…. there is collusion with respect to that because something has to be going on…. Something’s happening with those groups of folks that are running Facebook and Google and Twitter and I do think we have to get to the bottom of it.

The President’s remarks echoed concerns expressed by his son, Donald Trump Jr., in an op-ed calling out the targeting of conservatives that is becoming “ever more flagrant and overt.” He recounted examples of viewpoint discrimination, including his own run-in with Facebook’s Instagram.

“Despite the occasional brave gesture, politicians have been far too sluggish in recognizing the extent of the problem…. Silicon Valley lobbyists have splashed millions of dollars all over the Washington swamp to play on conservatives’ innate faith in the free-market system and respect for private property,” he declared.

Trump Jr. specifically lauded the efforts of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to call the major tech companies to account. Hawley, like NRB, has called attention to Big Tech’s special privileges under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Hawley has called them “sweetheart deals” for the tech giants.

In an interview with The Verge, Hawley this week expounded further:

I think we need to look at Section 230. I think we need to consider what reforms need to be made there in order to prevent viewpoint discrimination. We’re not talking about stopping speech that advocates crime. American law has long had ways of dealing with that in a First Amendment context. What we’re talking about is when these platforms exert editorial control to shut down political speech that they don’t like. And there’s no recourse, in part because of 230.

When asked whether amending Section 230 would lead to more censorship – a regular warning from libertarian defenders of the tech industry – Hawley replied:

The problem is that the dominant platforms are engaging in censorship now, there’s just no recourse. People say, “Well, where would you draw the line?” Well, First Amendment law has drawn this line for a long time. We’ve thought through this for literally more than a century now. So, the line-drawing problems are not as difficult as folks make it sound. The law has developed clearly what’s the difference between speech that is illegal, and therefore protected, and then viewpoint speech.

NRB has repeatedly called for Silicon Valley leaders to adopt their own industry free speech charter that applies the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, noting that those freedoms have been “refined by centuries of jurisprudence” and would still permit these platforms to “combat obscenity, incitements to violence, and the like, without unduly burdening free expression with an array of confusing and haphazardly applied speech codes.”

Given Silicon Valley’s failure to take action on this growing problem, NRB this year sent letters to congressional leaders calling for an exploration of the costs and benefits of removing or conditionally suspending Section 230’s extra layer of government-granted protection for ubiquitous platforms suspected of acting in bad faith.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

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