US Big Tech firms are the main targets of the global minimum corporate tax
US Big Tech firms are the main targets of the global minimum corporate tax AFP / Lionel BONAVENTURE

Free speech is fundamental to democracy, but as unelected Big Tech publishers become the gatekeepers of the flow of information, this pillar of the American experiment is crumbling beneath us. Misinformation has always been a challenge, but it was formerly held in check by laws against libel and slander. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act removed those checks by shielding Big Tech publishers like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, from the lawsuits that normally restrain the distribution of misinformation. Repeal of Section 230 is vital.

Section 230 was envisioned as protection from lawsuits for neutral internet publishers, as if they were merely acting like copying machines that republished everything fed into them. But today, a handful of individuals at Big Tech publishers now control the speech rules of billions of people, and they exercise editorial control over what content gets “copied” and redistributed. They deploy censorship tactics to suppress mainstream expert opinion, ban political speech from the public sphere, and silence scientific debate under the slippery guise of ‘misinformation’. They should be forced to play by the same rules as every other newspaper, radio, and television publisher that exercises editorial control over content.

This is not an argument against the censorship of content that violates copyright laws, or promotes illicit and harmful activities such as human trafficking or terrorism. Every publisher has an obligation to promote safe content, but increasingly Section 230 protections are being used to suppress the spread of information that counters the personal opinions of Big Tech employees.

The most undeniable example of this was Twitter’s decision to censor a New York Post article concerning Hunter Biden’s sale of political influence to foreign interests. The flimsy reason for the censorship cited by Twitter was that the story relied on hacked materials, despite no evidence of a hack. Leaks are standard journalistic practice and have led to some of the biggest stories in history - stories that regularly go viral on those same platforms. If Twitter wants to exercise editorial judgment to protect its favored political candidate in a national election, that is fair game, but it should not be permitted to simultaneously claim neutrality and continue to receive Section 230 protections.

For those on the left who are comforted that many Big Tech companies have predominantly left-leaning cultures centered in the San Francisco Bay region, they must consider that their counterparts on the right are building their own internet publishing networks with Section 230 protections. This will inevitably accelerate the polarization of the electorate and drive voters into increasingly divergent information bubbles that share few beliefs in common. Already, trust in mass media is abysmally low and polarization is at an all-time high. An October poll by Gallup showed that trust in mass media by Republicans is at a shockingly low 11% and trust overall is at a meager 36%.

On COVID, Big Tech hardly has clean hands. At the start of the pandemic, Facebook banned ads promoting the use of facemasks, claiming they feared profiteering by medical equipment suppliers. Months later, Facebook reversed itself and banned anyone from questioning the efficacy of facemasks. Facebook also banned discussion of the ‘lab leak’ theory, silencing an important scientific debate about whether human researchers played a role in the creation of the worst pandemic in a century. The list of esteemed scientists and medical professionals who have been censured by Big Tech for questioning the latest groupthink is too long to include here, but points to a serious anti-intellectual movement and growing intolerance of debate. Section 230 continues to protect and enshrine Big Tech censors as self-appointed arbiters of truth.

This is not a partisan issue; it affects everyone who cares about the democracy they live in. There has never been a totalitarian regime that did not have censorship explicitly baked into their political system. Yesterday’s book-burners have become today’s Big Tech censors. Democracies should be as committed to transparency and free speech as dictatorships are committed to censorship and silencing critics.

We are on a slippery slope to becoming more like China, where even a well-informed Chinese citizen will never come across a Uighur voicing the horrors of Xinjiang concentration camps online; or Iran, where a carefully managed range of political debate on social media is permitted to create the illusion of democracy. Behind the scenes, the Ayatollahs decide what is acceptable, and we are rapidly developing our own free speech clerics in Silicon Valley.

We should depose them before they become too powerful to criticize. The slow creep of implicitly biased censorship is more dangerous than outright totalitarian tactics. Like a lobster being boiled, many of us will only realize what is happening when it is too late.

Freedom of speech isn’t just something for ‘free speech advocates’ -- it benefits every citizen. It is the mechanism by which we can move our society forward. Free discussion allows a free flow of information, which enables us to sharpen our opinions and improve our policies.

Social media currently does the opposite. It surrounds us with people who think in exactly the same way we do, because that content is more likely to keep us on the app. More disturbingly, social media is designed to solidify our polarization by defining out-groups: those nasty “others” with whom we disagree. A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that negative out-group language leads to almost 5 times more shares and retweets than any other kind of language on social media. If they know that, so do the Big Tech bosses. Tim Berners Lee accurately said of Twitter “If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly.”

A repeal of Section 230 will not cure all of these problems overnight, but it will force Big Tech to play by the same rules as every other publisher. The traditional remedies for managing public misinformation have served our democracy well for nearly 250 years and must be restored.

About the author:

William Ammerman
William Ammerman is the award-winning author. William Ammerman

William Ammerman is the award-winning author of The Invisible Brand and is a thought leader in AI, and machine learning.