Liberty Expose: Senator Hawley's Big Tech Folly

Freshman Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is making waves this month in the debate over censorship, and not in a good way. Last week, Hawley introduced the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” which would amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and grant the Federal Trade Commission more power to police social media sites. So far, the bill is widely panned as an assault on freedom of speech -- and rightly so to be frank. The Freshman Senator’s gambit is a continuing effort in making the GOP a party that tackles the issues the digital world foists upon society, but Hawley’s quest to rein in big tech is not one worth fighting.

The Act’s focus is to specifically change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This section dictates that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Essentially, this means that online platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not liable for the content that its users post on their sites. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), it would be nearly impossible for such companies to police the millions (or in Facebook’s case, billions) of its users and determine whether or not the content that they post should be removed. This section also protects bloggers from the comments made by their readers, tips, or the comments of their readers. Overall, it’s a very reasonable section that is crucial in protecting freedom of expression.

Enter the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, a bill that would end these privileges for online platforms with “more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million monthly active users worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue” effort to put them on the same playing field as print publishers when it comes to libel claims. The FTC would act as the sole adjudicator in determining “whether a platform is moderating with ‘political neutrality.’” If the platform does meet these guidelines, then they can once again enjoy liability protections.  

There are two main reasons Hawley devised this Act. The first reason is one that I have discussed on several occasions -- the supposed suppression of conservative voices on social media platforms. The algorithms these sites use are accused of disproportionately targeting conservatives over liberals. Members of the alt-right like Alex Jones, Jacob Wohl and Laura Loomer, among many others, have all been banned on social media sites while those on the left such as Minister Louis Farrakhan -- who espouses deeply anti-semetic rhetoric on his account -- still has a platform.. To Senator Hawley, these sites are robbing some people of their freedom of expression and allowing others to get away with equally or more questionable content (although I still am not shedding a single tear for these trolls who poison conservatism with their vile words).

The other concern is that social media platforms are not doing enough to stop the proliferation of content that actually threatens society, such as terrorism and other crimes. Terrorists movements have greatly benefited from the rise of social media. Through sites like Facebook, these violent organizations are able to recruit, fundraise and spread propaganda to increase their influence. Videos on these sites in particular are an effective way for Islamic-based terror groups to encourage others to commit lone wolf attacks such as the shootings at Fort Hood (Nov. 5, 2009) and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (June 12, 2016). But because of the anonymity that online platforms provide, it is difficult to identify every possible terrorist and shut their groups down.

With this said, I cannot imagine a more Orwellian piece of legislation that has come out of the West (other than the obvious USA PATRIOT Act which allowed the NSA and other intelligence agencies to collect private citizens metadata in the shadowy FISA courts, among other policies). Hawley’s bill, if it is successful in getting signed into law, would grant the FTC immense powers over what is considered “political speech.” By granting an agency discretion to determining what is good speech and not, then it opens up the possibility for abuse. Under the current Republican administration, the FTC might unfairly target liberal posts over conservative; and when a Democrat takes back the Executive Branch, the opposite could occur.

In regards to the defense that the Act would combat terrorism, would it also finally force the government to recognize the growing threat of terrorism connected to white supremacy? According to Max Boot in the Washington Post, “right-wing terrorists have killed far more people in the United States in the past decade than Islamist extremists have,” yet the current administration has denied funding to initiatives to fight this terrible foe. If the FTC shows bias in favor of right-wing voices, it may be less receptive to the threats coming from the extreme ends of the conservative movement.

This is not Hawley’s first rodeo in going after online publishers. In May, Senators Hawley, Ed Markey (MASS-D) and Richard Blumenthal (CONN-D) introduced a bill that would prohibit game publishers from including microtransactions (such as loot boxes) in minor-oriented games. These microtransactions incentivizes users to pay real money to earn an in-game reward to give them an edge over other players, creating a pay-to-win environment. Because the in-game rewards are also random, it creates an online, unregulated gambling system. The Senators behind this bill argue that because it is a form of online gambling, and thus has an addictive side effects, it is ultimately harmful to the players -- particularly minors.

As a gamer myself, I can understand the reasoning behind such a bill because yes, there is definitely a lure that these cash shops have on players. Whether it’s a flashy new armor appearance or a buff to your character’s overall power, microtransactions are an effortless way to spend yours (or your parents’) money. However, even though this might be a problem does not mean it requires government action. Sometimes it requires parents or the gamers themselves to exercise restraint when it comes to their expenditures. Parents need to set guidelines for their kids on what they can and cannot do in these games, along with drilling into their heads that spending money on something that is ultimately not going to affect their lives is not worth it. At the end of the day, personal responsibility is the only curative.

Of the many disappointments to have come out of the 2018 Midterms, the election of Josh Hawley ranks high on that list. Even if the Missouri Senator has good intentions by combating online terrorism or ensuring platforms do not discriminate on the basis of political beliefs with this Act, giving such immense power to a government agency is a slippery slope into Orwellian territory. More government control over online platforms is not what conservatives should ever fight for.