In the middle of a pandemic, Wednesday's violent mobilization at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters with the urging of the president was facilitated with ease, out in the open and all online, through a handful of technology platforms that enabled everything from crowdfunding and ride-sharing to branded merchandise. There is no way Wednesday's events could have happened without the convenience and ease afforded to white supremacists — and almost everyone else — by the openness of the modern consumer internet.
It's ironic, then, that the insurrection unfolded on the heels of President Donald Trump's continual efforts to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it difficult to sue online platforms over the content they host (or don't) — or how they moderate it (or don't). Had Trump succeeded in his yearslong effort to change the law, which he'd apparently deemed responsible for what he'd heretofore thought was his lack of social media success, it's entirely possible that the platforms on which his supporters organized their riots would have kicked them off long ago or been sued into doing so.
Of course, now that Facebook and Instagram have banned Trump for "at least" the rest of his time in office and Twitter has "permanently suspended" his personal account, @realDonaldTrump (and restricted his access to but not suspended @POTUS, which will be turned over to President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20 in any case), we can expect those calls to resume anew and with additional fervor — mostly because few people really understand the law itself.
Section 230 is, of course, the rare law that is disliked by Republicans and Democrats. Biden hates it, having said: "I think social media should be more socially conscious in terms of what is important in terms of our democracy. ... Everything should not be about whether they can make a buck." Republican lawmakers have come to hate it, too, believing that it protects only anti-conservative bias by social media companies. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called to reform the law.
Tech companies have seized on the opaque nature of what Rule 230 does (or can do) to deflect responsibility for their role fostering misinformation, cultivating hate speech and undermining the integrity of American elections.
They're not entirely wrong: There are legitimate reasons to scrutinize Rule 230 and its many flaws. It's one of the most consequential laws governing the internet, and it provided a crucial liability shield for technology companies for content they didn't themselves create, like comment threads. But it was created in 1996, before social media as we know it even existed — and it has never even been updated to take into account any of the technological changes that have happened since.
What Rule 230 isn't (though it's often portrayed that way) is a bedrock for free speech protections: It's simply a rule that permits internet companies to moderate what other people put on their platforms — or not — without being on the hook legally for everything that happens to be there. (The exceptions for this shield include actively illegal content, such as child pornography and blatant violations of intellectual property). It allows them to choose, with very few restrictions, what kind of space they want to create for users; the same law that would have let Twitter "shadow ban" conservatives (it didn't) and allowed Facebook to delete pictures with the nipples of breastfeeding mothers if a baby wasn't attached also lets 4chan and Parler moderate almost nothing at all, regardless of how vile it was.
The technology industry has naturally seized on the opaque nature of what Rule 230 does (or can do) to deflect responsibility for its role fostering misinformation, cultivating hate speech and undermining the integrity of American elections. For instance, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube — a platform owned by Google that has been increasingly credited as the most efficient engine for radicalization and extremism — gaslighting none other than Lesley Stahl in a "60 Minutes" interview by claiming that the company is merely a distribution channel and that it has no responsibility to behave as an influential media platform.
Until Wednesday's riots, fomented by the president of the United States, Facebook and Twitter took positions similar to YouTube's. But no technology platform that can be used to build power is immune to abuses of power or political influence.
They're not entirely wrong: There are legitimate reasons to scrutinize Rule 230 and its many flaws.
As it is practiced, Rule 230 protects neither technology companies nor their users; it simply enables abuse. In a pandemic, we have seen quite clearly how technology — and access to technology — powers modern civic life. Yet as it stands, technology without responsibility, without truth, without honesty and without integrity is being leveraged to embolden fascists both in government and out of it, to spread propaganda and to inoculate self-interested entrenched power from accountability. And that's not good for the companies — none of us would do better under fascism — or users.
There is an opportunity to use technology to protect people's ability to safely participate in democracy and enable a different America — the America we witnessed in Georgia on Tuesday — and a different world. There is a world where technology policies facilitate democratic success stories: It's a world where the digital-first Latinx organizing group Mijente contacted every Latinx voter in Georgia; it's a world where technology enabled organizations supporting the domestic worker movement Care in Action to contact more than 5 million Georgia voters; it's a world where women of color overcame tremendous structural voter suppression to turn out to the polls in record numbers.
It doesn't also have to be a world where would-be seditionists use technology to openly plot the end of American democracy with the tacit blessing of the president. And in its wake, we can see the technology companies — and even Trump's own enablers — admitting as much.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, known for carrying Trump's water on everything, said Thursday that he wouldn't pursue previously announced efforts to change Section 230. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who usually rage at the most minor of social media rebukes, were muted about a legislative response this weekend as social media companies cracked down on Trump's social media accounts — with the exception of Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who promised to pursue a full repeal of Section 230.
There has been no shortage of previous occasions for technology leaders to reckon with their actions and change course.
These entrenched powers aren't breaking rank with the president or his supporters out of a moral imperative but out of self-preservation. After Republicans lost the White House, the House and then the Senate, technology companies no longer feel pressure to cozy up to conservatives to keep their prerogatives.
But don't mistake the technology industry's lobbying points about free speech as being related to any real care for American democracy. The major technology platforms enabling hate speech all have one thing in common with our 45th president: self-interest. At its purest level, that is by design: The principles of capitalism, not humanity, power both technology companies and Trump supporters.
And there has been no shortage of previous occasions for technology leaders to reckon with their actions and change course. In the final chapter of Trump's hellscape presidency, they endured a major test — and we all failed.
Freedom of speech is truly a value to cherish, but we cherish it through facilitating the expression of truth, not the unfettered right to spew lies and incite violence without consequence. Truth is how we create a resilient democracy, in which freedom, safety and belonging are enjoyed by all everywhere — including our most vulnerable, and even online.