Last night Republican Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) sparred with Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic hopeful threatening his seat. They debated a flurry of issues as well as called each other multiple names. And during the debate, Cruz said one thing that likely made many technology professionals’ ears perk up.
When asked about whether Congress should regulate online social media–which is an issue that has become at once so layered and co-opted by politicians that the intent of the question has likely been lost–Cruz made reference to a very specific law. He began first by explaining that he took Mark Zuckerberg to task for Facebook privileging content from certain political viewpoints (an allegation that has been disproven). He then went on to say that if tech companies are not acting impartial to content, then they shouldn’t be held to the rules that say they are.
Here’s the exact quote: “Right now, big tech enjoys an immunity from liability on the assumption they would be neutral and fair,” the senator said. “If they’re not going to be neutral and fair, if they’re going to be biased, we should repeal the immunity from liability so they should be liable like the rest of us.”
This is a clear reference the Section 230, a provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that promises safe harbor protections for technology platforms from the content posted on them. It’s a landmark law, one that has dictated how the internet has evolved. Because online platforms were not held liable for third-party content posted on their sites, digital companies were able to grow to the behemoths they are today; think what would happen if businesses could sue Yelp for someone posting a one-star review. While it certainly paved the way for the internet we know and love today, Section 230 is also what protected sites like Reddit and 4chan from cracking down on hateful content.
For decades, technology companies have made sure that Section 230 remains preserved, as their entire business models rely on it. Facebook and Google sell ads because users are posting online–and the companies are not liable for what these people say. Cruz referencing that he supports repealing the law will surely send shivers down many a CEO’s spine.
Already, Section 230 is being slowly chipped away at. The newly passed Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) carves out exceptions for Section 230 when the content involves sex trafficking or prostitution. This has already had an impact on websites before considered to be neutral platforms. Were Congress to take things further, as Cruz referenced last night, the effect would be even bigger.
For now, it was just a fleeting comment during a heated debate. But I’m sure that one sentiment alone made many tech people into instant O’Rourke supporters.
You can watch the exchange below:
-Ted Cruz proposes repealing the immunity of liability that social media companies enjoy if they’re going to continue to be politically biased instead of being neutral and fair. pic.twitter.com/VthmHtJ2Ax
— The British Perspective ???????? (@ABritperspect) October 17, 2018