January 27, 2022

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Senator Marco Rubio Warned That Social Media Has Too Much Unchecked Power

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The United States government was designed to have checks and balances, and while it may not be a perfect system, it has been effective at maintaining stability for nearly two and a half centuries.

Yet, the great threat to the future of our democracy could be from the tech world, warned Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who suggested in an interview this week that social media has “unchecked power to silence voices they disagree with, even as they cozy up to authoritarian regimes across the globe.”

Rubio, in an editorial for Fox News, on Tuesday said that he wouldn’t be celebrating the departure of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, as he warned that incoming CEO Parag Agrawal could be worse given Agrawal’s stance that Twitter’s “role is not to be bound by the First Amendment.” The Florida lawmaker also said that Agrawal has openly acknowledged that social media’s platform role is in controlling the content that users have access to.

“In other words, Twitter’s new CEO believes the platform is and should be acting as a publisher, which means, according to the law, it is no longer eligible for Section 230 protections,” said Rubio. “When lawmakers first wrote Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act in 1996 – the same year the Palm Pilot was introduced to the world and a year before Google was even founded – Congress wanted internet companies to be able to host third-party content and engage in targeted moderation of the worst content without being responsible for what was written by others.”

Rubio has said that as Twitter is now engaged in sweeping content moderation, curation, and promotion, it is essentially no different than traditional publishers such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, which generally can be held accountable for spreading of false information.

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However, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was put in place to shield Internet companies from legal liability for content posted by its users. It states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230).

In June, Sen. Rubio introduced the Disincentivizing Internet Service Censorship of Online Users and Restrictions on Speech and Expression (DISCOURSE) Act, which would hold Big Tech responsible for complying with pre-existing obligations per Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. It would clarify ambiguous terms that allow Big Tech to engage in censorship.

“Under Section 230 as it is written today, Big Tech firms can get away with censoring Americans on the exceedingly vague basis of content being ‘otherwise objectionable,'” wrote Rubio. “My bill would dump that unacceptably vague language and replace it with concrete categories, like ‘promoting terrorism.'”

The bill would also broaden the scope of practices that make a company liable for content on its platform.

“Specifically, the DISCOURSE Act would remove protections for firms that engage in the following three destructive behaviors: first, manipulating algorithms to target users who have not requested or searched for the content; second, moderating users to promote or censor a specific viewpoint; and third, it would make providers responsible when they engage in information creation and development,” added Rubio.

Critics of Rubio’s have countered that his views don’t accurately depict the situation on social media today.

“In essence, he is attempting to demean Twitter for holding people accountable for their misstatements, exaggerations and outright lies, and suggests instead that responsible social platforms are acting irresponsibly,” said technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT.

“Twitter’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal, is correct in stating that the platform is not bound by the First Amendment,” King added. “Like other social platforms, Twitter is more akin to a private club than newspapers, TV networks or similar traditional news outlets. Like other private clubs, it has established codes of conduct and requires members to adhere to them. Break the rules flagrantly and participants risk suspension or expulsion.”

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