A Republican Congressman has introduced a new bill which, if passed, could prevent US tech companies like Google and Facebook from censoring any online content.
Representative Paul Gosar, from Arizona, is the man who has introduced the bill. It seeks to make important amendments to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
This is the section which currently permits tech platforms to suppress material and data that they deem to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
These reasons are somewhat vague and inevitably different platforms interpret them differently. As a result, US-based tech companies routinely block a wide variety of different content.
The Gosar anti-censorship bill
Gosar’s new bill would essentially expunge Section 230 from the legislation altogether. Instead, it would grant the tech platforms a degree of immunity provided they gave their users the power to block or filter content as they see fit.
In other words, Gosar wants to take the power to censor and control online information away from America’s big tech companies and hand it to individual internet users to use as they see fit. Those that do this, will continue to be given immunity from prosecution for hosting content that could be deemed libellous or defamatory.
Interestingly, as well as removing their censorship powers, the Gosar Bill would also prevent tech companies from prioritising content. This is something that could prove unpopular with the tech companies themselves, as the market in promoted content and advertising is a highly lucrative one.
At the present time, there is very little that individual internet users can do to stop tech companies from censoring content on their platforms. They are private companies and entitled to do as they see fit with content posted to their platforms.
While VPNs can be used to circumvent the censorship of content by governments, they will often not do the same job with individual platforms. That is because rather than the content being blocking in a specific geographic location, it is often deleted from the platform altogether.
Why is Rep. Gosar introducing this bill?
Representative Gosar is not being entirely altruistic in bringing this bill forward now.
In recent months, there has been big controversy in the US about supposed censorship of right-wing and conservative content online by a number of major online platforms including the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Gosar is one of many prominent Republicans who clearly believe this is happening and that it poses a threat to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the free market, and even the integrity of the democratic process if it is allowed to continue unchecked.
In a statement released alongside the draft bill, Gosar argued, “Big Tech has demonstrated a clear bias against conservatives and censorship represents an existential threat to free speech, free markets, and free elections.”
His case for this bill hinges on the fact that “Big Tech’s immunity should strictly be for good faith efforts to remove actual unlawful material” not for policing political content.
However, as a free-market advocate, his argument falls down a little on the idea of controlling what private organisations can and cannot post on their sites.
While Gosar’s political views may be a long way from those of most Google and Facebook executives, surely he respects their right to police their platforms as they see fit? After all, if the market doesn’t like what they are allowing or not allowing on their site, users will surely stop using them?
A statement bill destined for discussion and then death
Representative Gosar is clearly passionate about the point he is making with this bill but even he must know that it is destined for a short life.
The Democrats control of Congress along with the fact that many Republican representatives may well also feel uncomfortable about potentially unblocking all sorts of controversial and distasteful content means it has little hope of progression.
But as is so often the case with this sort of bill, that rather misses the point. Gosar wants to put this issue back into the public domain again and provoke further discussion about it.
By doing so, he is putting pressure on the big tech companies to reign in their controls on right-wing content on their platforms and in so doing, doing his party a service.
However, the idea of putting online censorship powers into the hands of internet users themselves is an intriguing one. Could there be a future for a vision of the internet where ISPs and tech companies only censor the most severe and illegal content with users themselves having the power to filter or not filter everything else?
This is a concept which could appeal to people of all political persuasions. The question of how governments and tech companies could get a grip on issues like fake news and the risk of further polarising political debates by such an approach is perhaps the main sticking point.
There is no obvious solution to the problem at present. But one thing is for certain, politicians like Paul Gosar are not going to let the matter lie.