Last week, the Department of Justice released a new proposal targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms, including social media sites, from being held liable for third-party content. In the DOJ's eyes, granting tech companies "good faith" leeway to moderate content is no longer acceptable.
Enacted in 1996, Section 230 ensures that online platforms can serve as a public sphere for conversation while protecting them from lawsuits filed over content their user's post. The provision allowed the internet to flourish, but it's been a political lightning rod for these businesses as they navigated the murky waters of content moderation and free speech.
One recent example: Facebook and Twitter removed posts by President Trump claiming children were "almost immune" to COVID-19, which they labeled as misinformation. Twitter went one step further and locked the Democratic National Committee's account, along with others who shared the comments, even though they were critical of the original post.
Republicans view such actions as suppressing conservatives viewpoints. That sentiment was on full display in this summer's big tech antitrust congressional hearing. In his opening statement, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) summed up the contention of many conservatives, saying, "I'll just cut to the chase, big tech is out to get conservatives." Meanwhile, Democrats, like Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), say social media platforms aren't doing enough to remove problematic content.
Though the new DOJ proposal, along with others, may be dead on arrival, the politics circling Section 230 guarantees it will take center stage no matter the electoral outcome in November.And it could have ripple effects far and wide.
In addition to the DOJ's new policy proposal, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have introduced a flurry of bills that would jeopardize Section 230, including creating a federal speech police. This idea would require social media companies to undergo a DMV-style inspection by the FCC every two years to examine political neutrality in their content moderation approach.
We know this; the growing anti-tech sentiment is likely to persist regardless of the election outcome. If President Trump is re-elected, his administration will continue on its current path. If former VP Joe Biden is elected, his running mate Senator Kamala Harris will bring staff with her into the White House who were involved in reforming Section 230 when she was California's attorney general.
In anticipation, the tech industry should educate their consumer base, especially generation Z and millennials, on the work they have done to fight harmful content and protect speech, as well as find ways to collaborate even more closely than they are now.
Generation Z and some younger millennials have never known a time without the internet. They tend to view social media companies more favorably than other generations. These truly native users are the ones who will be more knowledgeable about both the benefits and the challenges of technology — and potentially more motivated and empowered to help solve these issues moving forward.
Although each platform has its own philosophies on content moderation and business practices, the industry should work together to anonymously aggregate data on how it is protecting free speech and keeping the internet safe. By doing so effectively, it can seek to change the anti-tech narrative in Washington.
Izzy Santa is a SVP at BCW, a global communications agency, and was formerly the director of strategic communications at the Consumer Technology Association.