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One of the few things Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on in our divided nation is a desire to restrict speech on the Internet.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has become a favorite target for partisans on both sides. The provision states that owners of an Internet platform “shall not be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information” posted on their site, and are therefore protected from libel laws.
Republicans want to see the provision rescinded because they believe conservative voices, including that of former President Donald Trump, are being censored. Democrats want to see it rescinded because they believe it shields those who profit from the spread of misinformation.
To that end, newly elected Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico has signed on to a bill by Sen. Amy Klobuchar that would strip Internet platforms of their Section 230 protections when it comes to information about health care.
The bill would further politicize health care by making the secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for reviewing all related comments on the Internet and determining which ones contain misinformation and which ones don’t.
Like all other cabinet positions, the secretary of HHS answers to the president and is responsible for helping to advance the administration’s agenda. Anything challenging that agenda could be labeled misinformation.
Does anyone think current HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Trump administration Secretary Alex Azar would agree on which comments should be removed?
When asked how they would establish an algorithm that would precisely detect misinformation while still allowing for skeptical debate, Lujan said he hadn’t looked into that yet
Klobuchar, Lujan and others supporting this bill are responding to the understandable frustration many of us share regarding the low vaccination rates in several regions of the country. It is maddening that we have the intelligence required to defeat this deadly pandemic, yet so many lack the intelligence required for our nation to take full advantage.
I fear that problem will be resolved through death and illness, but I’m certain it cannot be fixed through Internet censorship by government officials loyal to the current administration.
People have had an irrational fear of vaccines ever since we’ve had vaccines. The politicization of virtually every aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly exasperated that problem. We should do all we can to encourage trusted sources to counter misinformation with facts. But we’ll never be able to stop people from spreading lies and rumors.
That said, none of the above should be seen as a defense of Section 230. Internet platforms have become the dominant publishers of our day. Their influence is now far stronger than that of traditional media. It makes no sense to hold them to a lower standard.
Internet platforms have established a business model that profits from stirring our passions and allowing us to easily find like-minded people to confirm our darkest instincts. They’ve done irreparable damage in an incredibly short amount of time.
Section 230 should be scrapped entirely, and all publishers should face the same level of liability for the content they disseminate.
But, any bill that would allow the government to determine which comments are true and worthy of being heard and which are false and must be censored should be seen as a partisan power grab, regardless of the cause cited by its backers.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.