Many Silicon Valley tech companies may have started in college dorms and family garages, but the last 20 years have seen them balloon into billion-dollar behemoths that control the content we see, track us on and off the internet, and censor our speech.
A large part of this growth has been fueled by a sweetheart deal the tech lobby made with the government when the lobby was in its infancy — the same deal that currently allows it to play god with our free expression.
Now, Big Tech is trying to take that sweetheart deal even further, using their half-billion-dollar lobbying budget to expand their content control to Mexico and Canada as part of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal (USMCA) Congress may ratify before the end of the year.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been protecting Big Tech from accountability for decades. Specifically, Section 230 provides tech companies immunity regarding user-posted content. From a legal standpoint, it’s what makes Big Tech companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook “platforms” instead of “publishers.” In other words, instead of providing editorial control over users’ content, the law envisions them acting like bulletin boards, simply providing a forum to host whatever views their users want to share.
At least, this is how it’s supposed to work. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers has raised a spectrum of issues that suggests Big Tech are no longer neutral platforms, and as such, perhaps these companies’ treatment in federal law should change.
Legislators including everyone from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., have pointed out issues ranging from the spread of political misinformation, to viewpoint censorship, to raising questions over Section 230’s role in incentivizing these companies to better police the sex trafficking, extremism, and even child abuse that flourishes on tech platforms.
This bipartisan interest in changing the law to hold tech companies accountable is what Big Tech fears most. It explains why they are aggressively lobbying to lock the existing Section 230 into the USMCA. Doing so would effectively hamstring Congress from legislating, as any future change to the law would require the USMCA to be renegotiated.
It’s a shady move by Big Tech to avoid accountability and oversight by Congress, which rightly wants to examine whether these companies deserve the legal immunity from which they have profited for decades. The evidence suggests they do not deserve immunity and that tech companies have used the Section 230 shield to engage in overt political bias and censorship.
Pinterest blocked content from pro-life activist group Live Action, Facebook removed videos from the conservative group PragerU, Google-owned YouTube removed more than 300 ads from the Trump reelection campaign, and Google’s search engine prioritizes some search results over others. Twitter continues to apply arbitrary censorship to users who engage in things such as “deadnaming” or calling illegal immigrants “criminals.”
It is clear these tech companies no longer meet the definition of a “platform,” which the law intended to serve as a “forum for a true diversity of political discourse.” Instead, Big Tech exerts tremendous editorial control and overt censorship that no longer deserves the benefit of special legal protection.
At a minimum, Congress should continue its efforts to review Section 230. But it will be cut off at the knees if Big Tech is successful in its lobbying efforts to enshrine its special breaks into the USMCA.
It’s time for Congress to hold Big Tech accountable to standards of fairness and transparency, either by revoking their special privileges or reforming what is clearly an outdated statute. But Congress cannot allow its efforts to be circumvented by self-interested, billion-dollar Silicon Valley giants lobbying to extend their censorship regimes as part of the USMCA.