Les Sillars – Accountability for guilty knowledge

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, March 2nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in 1996. That’s the law that protects internet platforms from legal liability for things their users post. Conservatives say social media platforms hide behind Section 230 to censor conservative speech. Progressives say the platforms don’t censor enough speech. Both sides want reform.

Journalism professor Les Sillars says both sides are missing the point.

LES SILLARS, COMMENTATOR: Section 230 doesn’t need to be reformed. Congress should repeal it. I know, that’s just not realistic, even though Trump, Biden, and others have floated the idea. Nevertheless, let me explain why Section 230 should be repealed.

Communication law distinguishes between “vendors” and “publishers.” In general, vendors distribute content. Publishers produce content and are responsible for it. It’s based on the legal principle of “scienter,” or “guilty knowledge.” You don’t hold the guy selling newspapers on the corner responsible for the libel printed in the newspaper. But if you knew or should have known about the content, you’re responsible for it.

Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996 to, basically, hold porn mongers accountable. Congress included Section 230 to encourage Internet companies to clean up their platforms. They can edit sexual, violent, or, quote, “otherwise objectionable” content and still be legally protected as long as they do so, quote, “in good faith.”

Section 230 was supposed to balance immunity and accountability. In reality, it tossed aside scienter. Guilty knowledge. So Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the rest have the best of both worlds: They can act like publishers but be protected like vendors.

Many say repealing Section 230 would force every internet organization that relies on user-generated content to choose: vendor or publisher? Vendor platforms couldn’t edit anything. Users would soon turn them into even bigger cesspools.

Publisher platforms would have to police user content. But what about free speech? And if social media platforms collapse, what about all those businesses and worthy organizations that rely on them to find their audiences, patrons, and customers?

Repealing Section 230 would certainly disrupt many businesses because many people would stop or at least moderate their social media use.

But would that be so bad?

Big Tech’s manipulation of public debate and double standards for censorship are very troubling. Why, exactly, should we trust the, quote, “good faith” of a handful of massive global companies to protect free speech? Together they have more money and social clout than most governments. Why should they continue to get special treatment through Section 230?

Should so many Christian organizations depend on these companies?

Does anybody believe that in five years Big Tech will censor less Christian content than today, no matter how you “reform” Section 230?

Social media technologies are among the most powerful things human beings have ever created. Because of Section 230, the people who run them are largely unaccountable for their content. Repealing Section 230 won’t fix everything, and might cause other problems. But it would at least restore an important principle of justice to this problem.

I’m Les Sillars.


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