Congress Should Reconsider Big Tech’s Special Legal Privileges That Foster Censorship

Congress Should Reconsider Big Tech’s Special Legal Privileges That Foster Censorship

What if Big Tech’s privileged legal position is a shield to permit it to practice censorship against people, organizations, and worldviews that are not favored in Silicon Valley?
Jerry A. Johnson
By

Big Tech’s online censorship of Christian and conservative viewpoints has become so commonplace some have come to regard it as a reality we all must accept and work around.

Even when someone as prominent as international evangelist Franklin Graham was banned from Facebook for 24 hours during Christmas week, for comments about gender he posted in 2016, the censorship is only lightly covered by the mainstream media, who have bought the spin of progressives in Congress and elsewhere that such censorship is a “hoax” or “conspiracy theory.”

No wonder progressives would take that position. When’s the last time Rachel Maddow, Planned Parenthood, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was censored by Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? It’s not hard to imagine why censorship doesn’t happen to prominent liberals, since Silicon Valley’s political sympathies are well known, and even acknowledged by Big Tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

Both as a matter of principle and with the benefit of historical experience, conservatives are leery of governmental intrusion in the marketplace. Private companies, including Big Tech, should not suffer burdensome regulation that impedes their ability to succeed. Indeed, the incredible growth of the tech industry is attributable, in part, to our government’s lassiez-faire approach to this sector.

Yet what if Big Tech’s privileged legal position is a shield to permit it to practice censorship against people, organizations, and worldviews that are not favored in progressive Silicon Valley? This is the question that we believe it’s time for Congress to answer as part of a careful reevaluation of the Communications Decency Act, specifically the “Good Samaritan” provision of Section 230.

On Jan. 9 we sent letters to the chairs and ranking members of the House Judiciary, House Energy and Commerce, Senate Judiciary, and Senate Commerce committees requesting hearings on this matter in order to seek an appropriate governmental remedy to online censorship.

This request comes after we have carefully tracked and documented viewpoint censorship for years. Repeatedly, we have urged Big Tech leaders to adopt a free speech charter to ensure their platforms are an even playing field for debate. In December 2017, we launched Internet Freedom Watch to draw greater attention to this problem. For many years we have amassed evidence of viewpoint censorship on the internet, illustrating it with a timeline with more than 40 high-profile examples.

In addition to Graham, the timeline is a veritable who’s who of Christian and conservative leaders and causes, including cases involving Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Susan B. Anthony List, PragerU, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Alliance Defending Freedom, NRBTV, Erick Erickson, Dr. Michael Brown, Live Action, D. James Kennedy Ministries, Dr. Carol Swain, Ray Comfort, Phil Robertson, Todd Starnes, Chuck Colson’s Manhattan Declaration, and other Christian leaders and ministries, as well as conservative leaders and organizations.

The common denominator is espousing viewpoints progressives oppose and increasingly seek to squelch in the public marketplace of ideas. Although some of these cases of censorship were later corrected, that the problem persists and is growing indicates it is systemic.

Our timeline does not include every verifiable example of viewpoint suppression, and we believe it is only “the tip of the iceberg,” with many more instances of censorship going unreported by people who feel they have no recourse. Similar discrimination in the 1940s against Christian content on radio, the most pervasive electronic media of that time, spurred NRB into existence 75 years ago, and is one reason we care so much about this new threat to our free expression.

In spite of these examples, Big Tech leaders have not resolved this matter of substantiated viewpoint discrimination—intentional or not, algorithmic or human—and it is time for a remedy. Rather than some other possibly heavy-handed government interventions that have been suggested, such as any type of Fairness Doctrine, it is time for Congress to explore further what may be the costs and benefits of removing or conditionally suspending Section 230’s extra layer of government-granted content moderation protection for ubiquitous platforms suspected of acting in bad faith.

Our call for review of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act comes as several congressional leaders from both parties, including Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), have also raised issues with Big Tech’s guaranteed immunities under that law for the way they treat user content on their platforms.

If Big Tech is going to censor ideological content, Congress should determine if they have become de facto publishers. Why should they deserve protections other publishers do not enjoy? Like other publishers, if they have wronged someone, perhaps they will have to have their day in court.

We make this suggestion reluctantly given this law’s key role as an incubator for the flourishing internet ecosystem. We urge that any congressional re-evaluation of Section 230 be very cautious, and still hope industry leaders will diffuse this matter by embracing a robust plan in defense of the free speech rights of their users.

However, it is unacceptable for technology giants to discriminate by algorithmic bias or human will against users just because their viewpoints don’t fit ideas popular in Silicon Valley. This problem deserves scrutiny and thoughtful consideration from the people’s representatives.

In the last year, Big Tech has faced growing criticism for its failure to protect users’ privacy and its role in recent elections, but has largely neglected concerns about censorship. While leaders like Zuckerberg and Dorsey have admitted the inherent ideological bias in their workforces and have reached out privately to some conservatives, there is little indication industry leaders are prepared to take concrete actions to address this problem.

It’s time for Congress to seriously engage this issue, since Big Tech shows little inclination to truly resolve the problem of viewpoint censorship of Christians and conservatives.

Jerry A. Johnson, PhD, is president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters. Headquartered Washington, D.C., NRB is a nonpartisan, international association of more than 1,000 evangelical organizations with millions of listeners, viewers, and readers.

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