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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Surprise! The Section 230 Hearing Wasn’t About Section 230

There’s a saying among journalists who cover politics: “Twitter isn’t real life.” It’s a reminder, too often forgotten, that the subset of Americans who spend a lot of time talking about politics on Twitter is not at all representative of the overall electorate. Only around one-fifth of US adults say they ever use the platform, and those users tend to be younger, more educated, wealthier, and more liberal than the rest of the country. As someone who spends far too much time online myself, I have derailed many a conversation by bringing up some controversy dominating my Twitter timeline, realizing my interlocutor has no idea what I’m talking about, and then watching their eyes glaze over as I try to explain the arcane online spat.

Which brings us to the Senate Commerce Committee hearing this morning. It was nominally about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 statute that grants interactive computer services broad legal immunity for user-generated content while allowing them to moderate that content without fear of taking on liability. In the event, however, the hearing was mostly an opportunity for Republicans on the committee to berate Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for supposedly discriminating against conservative users—especially conservative user number one, Donald Trump. Why, the senators demanded, did the company prevent accounts from sharing the New York Post story alleging evidence of wrongdoing recovered from Hunter Biden’s laptop? Why did Twitter “censor” so many of Trump’s tweets but leave up tweets by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei threatening the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust? Or a tweet by a member of the Chinese government accusing the US of causing the coronavirus pandemic? Or a satirical tweet accusing Senator Ron Johnson of killing his neighbor’s dog?

Dorsey remained monkishly calm through these exchanges. In the case of the Hunter Biden story, he said, the company incorrectly applied its policy on hacked materials and reversed course in a day. Trump’s tweets weren’t censored, they were just flagged as misleading or dangerous and had extra context added to them. The Ayatollah’s tweets didn’t violate Twitter’s policies because they count as “sabre-rattling” against foreign adversaries that the company tolerates from world leaders.

As with many congressional hearings, the point of this one wasn’t really to get answers, but sound bites. No one was readier to add to their sizzle reel than Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who has done as much as anyone to promote anti-conservative bias as a political issue worthy of debate in Washington. Cruz, appearing remotely, lit into Dorsey for what he considers Twitter’s “egregious” conduct. “Mr. Dorsey,” he snarled, “who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic Super PAC silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?”

The most notable thing about Cruz’s broadside was not its vituperative tone but the fact that it was directed at Dorsey and not the other two CEOs called to testify, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai. Indeed, over the course of the hearing, Dorsey fielded more questions from Republicans than those two combined, according to a New York Times tally. And yet Facebook and Google are far more embedded in American life, and play a far greater gatekeeping role, than Twitter could ever dream of. Around 70 percent of American adults use Facebook and YouTube regularly, and Google accounts for some 90 percent of the general search market. Given their dramatically larger user bases, Facebook and Google are far more significant drivers of traffic to media sites. Almost all of my WIRED stories get most of their traffic from one of the two—most often Google, whose monopoly on search makes it the first place readers go to look up a given topic. Banning my stuff from Twitter would be rough, but banning it from Google would be close to wiping it out of existence.

A serious hearing on that topic would be welcome indeed—a point that the committee’s Democrats made over and over, as they accused their Republican colleagues of trying to “work the refs” in the waning days of the election. It would have very little to do with Section 230, however. There are real reasons to think the law, as applied by courts, has gone too far in its grant of legal immunity. Would-be reformers have raised thoughtful questions about whether Section 230—which, by the way, applies to all interactive computer services, not just social media companies—should be changed, or reinterpreted, to make platforms responsible for hosting and algorithmically amplifying harmful or illegal content. But those questions are almost wholly separate from the issue of letting two massive, democratically unaccountable private companies exercise so much power over public discourse and access to knowledge. The Republicans on the commerce committee aren’t wrong to worry about that problem. But complaining to Jack Dorsey about some mean tweets won’t solve it.

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