Republicans Are at Odds With Themselves on Social Media Regulation

The GOP wants to make social media content moderation the government's business.

Some House Republicans are trying to have it both ways in their battle with social media companies. They want America’s leading technology businesses to engage in far less moderation for certain kinds of content, but far more moderation for others. They want these companies to make the “right” decisions in the “right” circumstances every time, but the proposals they offer would almost certainly make the internet a far worse place for all. 

Last month, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a package of draft bills that would greatly limit the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which allows companies to implement their own content moderation policies while also shielding them from liability for user-generated content—and force social media platforms to moderate content far more extensively than they currently do. If enacted, these bills would force platforms to follow the will of government bureaucrats or risk facing potentially devastating liability.

Interestingly, this directly conflicts with Republican demands that American tech businesses engage in far less content moderation. Claims of “censorship” and politically motivated enforcement decisions have become a rallying cry for conservative politicians and pundits in the post-Trump era. This year, more than 20 different states considered Republican-sponsored, anti-bias legislation that aims to prevent social media sites from removing potentially harmful content.

The reality is simple. Republicans don’t want less moderation, they simply want more control over what is and isn’t allowed on social media. In fact, this very tension shows what’s fundamentally hard about legislating on content moderation. Everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, has a different opinion on how it should be done. 

The truth is, content moderation is tied to a business’s values, their customers’ expectations, and market realities. So, it’s naturally impossible to adopt everyone’s preferred approach, let alone implement a hypothetical system that enforces such.

The sheer volume of online content itself makes this unachievable. Facebook has over 1.9 billion daily active users and Twitter receives an average of 500 million tweets each day. In the six months between July and December 2018, Facebook, Google, and Twitter reviewed and acted on more than 5 billion accounts and posts. We post new content every single second, and emerging trends online are constantly raising novel issues that require community guidelines to grow and evolve.

Republicans and Democrats have diametrically opposed views about moderation, and America’s leading tech businesses are caught in the crosshairs. But as the recent package of bills from House Energy and Commerce now shows, these businesses are also caught between Republicans who themselves can’t make up their mind about wanting more or less moderation.

At the heart of this back and forth is Section 230, a federal law specifically designed to deal with the struggle that is content moderation. Section 230 allows online platforms to experiment with different approaches without taking on the risk of uncapped liability. Under this law, online discourse has flourished while competition between social media platforms has thrived.  

Sadly, the House Republicans’ bill package would undermine this critical balance between free expression and digital safety by carving away at some of Section 230’s most important provisions. 

These bills would remove broad swaths of content from Section 230’s liability protections and expand its exemptions to cover all of federal civil law. They would also force platforms to adopt “reasonable” moderation practices, as defined by unelected government bureaucrats. Together, this bill package would effectively gut rules that promote personal responsibility, free enterprise, and free speech—all things conservatives should support. 

Moreover, these bills do absolutely nothing to address the underlying problems motivating these types of content. Harassment is harassment, on or offline. Passing the buck to social media to moderate more aggressively will only drive these problems into other avenues. It won’t actually address the problems themselves. 

Businesses would be forced to take a much more heavy-handed approach. Competition over content moderation practices would all but cease as companies crafted policies to stay in line with federal law. Large amounts of constitutional speech would vanish and users would be left with a one-size-fits-all experience that virtually no one will be happy with. 

Republicans should think long and hard about whether this is what they are actually trying to accomplish. If the goal is to encourage platforms to combat harmful content while still providing a robust online space where speech can flourish, these bills are not the way to do it. Instead, Republicans should remember what President Ronald Reagan so often reminded us—the best way to produce beneficial outcomes for all is private competition, not government intervention. 

Trace Mitchell is Policy Counsel at NetChoice, a trade organization.