Later, Facebook commissioned a study led by conservative senator John Kyl which offered no data to back up any systematic bias. Instead of demanding that this should end the complaints, Facebook made some general adjustments in its policies that gave the anecdotal gripes in the report more credibility than they warranted. Appeasement!Look, I get it—who wants to take on the president and the ruling party, especially when regulation is in the air? But instead of avoiding conflict, Facebook and Twitter leaders should have been emphasizing that they have just as much right to set their own standards as television stations, newspapers, and other corporations. Despite the fact that they are popular enough to be considered a “public square,” they are still private businesses, and the government has no business determining what legal speech can and cannot occur there. That is the essence of the First Amendment. But even as Mark Zuckerberg goes on about how he values free expression—as he was doing on television the same day Trump issued his order—he still refrains from demanding that the government respect Facebook’s own right to free speech.
To be sure, Trump is wading—no, make that belly-flopping—into a controversy over internet speech that is already fraught with intractable problems. The very act of giving bullhorns to billions is both a boon and a menace. Even with the purest intentions—and obviously those growth-oriented platforms are not pure—figuring out how to deal with it involves multiple shades of gray. But the current threat comes in clear black and white: the president of the United States is attempting a takeover of internet speech and asserting a federal privilege to topple truth itself.
Munich has failed. It’s time for the internet moguls to stop acting like Chamberlain—and start channeling Churchill.Time TravelSection 230 was part of the Communications Decency Act, a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The law included harsh penalties for “indecent” speech that minors might see. The force behind it was the conservative Democratic senator James Exon of Nebraska. While the “indecency” provisions limiting speech were thrown out by judges as unconstitutional restraints, Section 230 lived on. In April 1995, I wrote in Newsweek about the bill in progress. Who knew that 25 years later, we would still be arguing about it?