Is the Internet Really Safe From Undue Censorship?
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Even when the Supreme Court ruled against the Communications Decency Act (CDA), there are still questions as to whether the internet truly is a safe haven for the unbridled expression of thoughts and sentiments. The internet currently enjoys the highest level of First Amendment protection thanks to the ruling against the Communications Decency Act, but how exactly did this ruling make the internet safe?
Section 230 of the CDA
Section 230 of the CDA 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”. This means that platforms that host user-generated content are protected from liability for the content of their users. This allows platforms to function as avenues for free speech. Social media platforms and review websites are prime examples of platforms that host user-generated content.
Without this provision, platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, and Yelp can be held liable for the content generated by their users. This puts a heavy toll on the freedom of internet speech because platforms would be forced to heavily regulate their content to an extent that users can no longer give negative reviews or share a critical statement on an issue.
State Bills Pending in Several States
While the CDA resolution may have been a big victory, there are several pending bills that seek to impose restrictions on what you can disclose on the internet through site-blocking software that will be installed on public terminals, educational institutions. Other bills, like the one from Ohio, seek to criminalize the dissemination of material on the internet that is “harmful to minors”. The HB 3353 of Tennessee seeks to hold internet providers liable for the dissemination of materials harmful to youth, even when they were not the original authors.
How Are These Bills Harmful to Internet Freedom?
The intent of protecting minors from exposure to harmful content is commendable, but the problem is that such a law (should it ever be passed) can easily become a tool for suppressing a message deemed contrary to the governing body. The key question to ask here is who determines what is harmful to a minor and what isn’t? Censorship becomes a simple matter of branding a message as “harmful to minors”.
While there are many instances when censorship already happens (as is the case with cancel culture), the effect of when these bills are passed into laws (as they are now) is that the full weight of the law will be behind these censors, and that the law now becomes a means to assail the very freedom it is meant to protect.
While we aren’t sure whether these bills will prosper into laws, it’s always a good idea to have alternative channels of communication in order to give your political voice a chance to affect change. There are tools such as this GOP fundraising software that make use of SMS channels to drive political donations. As it stands, the internet is a tool, and like any tool, it can be manipulated.