By Rohan D. ‘25
What we eat, where we go, how we shop: the complex known as “Big Tech” has transformed our lives, leaving an ever-widening footprint that is indelible but also controversial. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Meta (Facebook) are economic powerhouses with a combined market value of more than 6 trillion, which exceeds the gross national product of any country except the United States or China (CQ Press). Offering many affordable services, these companies can immensely influence their users. However, critics claim that these monopolies will stifle competition and innovation, and most importantly, endanger U.S. democracy. Others argue that the benefits of these tech giants outweigh the consequences, and a split would create more harm with the potential loss of research and development, market fragmentation, and increased service costs (ITPro).
Because of this, many governing bodies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress, and the European Union are taking action to restrict the power and reach of these tech giants, such as by amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 has also been called the most important 26 words in tech that it provides for Americans’ freedom of expression on the internet by protecting the “intermediaries” (Electronic Frontier Foundation): “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 is because these companies receive immunity from civil liability regarding the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation as well as alleged antitrust activities (Investopedia).
One of the most notable cases currently putting this issue to the test is the Supreme Court Case Gonzalez v. Google. In November 2015, 23-year-old Nohemi Gonzalez was one of 130 people killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks throughout Paris, France. In 2016, her father sued Google and other Big Tech companies on grounds that they allowed for the spread and proliferation of radical content that pushed users to become terrorists. This case is targeting Section 230’s protection of Big Tech companies from lawsuits regarding the removal of content. The Supreme Court started hearing opening arguments in late February and will decide whether to amend this section to decrease immunity to these tech giants.
Both sides of the aisle agree on the issue that Section 230 should be amended: President Joseph Biden and his prominent senate opponents Senator Ted Cruz (R) from Texas and Senator Josh Hawley (R) from Missouri. The bipartisan nature of this action illustrates the far reach of Big Tech and how opposition to this broad immunity cuts across usually divergent ideological lines. While conservatives and liberals have all criticized Section 230, “they diverge on what to replace it with. Democrats would like to see companies take a stronger hand in moderating content, while Republicans, perceiving an anti-conservative bias, want fewer constraints overall,” said Samir Jain, the vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a company supporting Google in the Supreme Court case (NBC). Furthermore, Senator Cruz created an Amicus Brief with sixteen other congressmen detailing their arguments for further amending Section 230 as “lower courts’ interpretation of the current [Section] 230…have conferred near-absolute immunity on Big Tech companies to alter and push harmful content while simultaneously censoring conservative viewpoints on important political and social matters” (Supreme Court).
There are several possible solutions to reining in Big Tech proposed by the Department of Justice with the goals of addressing inconsistent free speech limitation and more importantly, the proliferation of potentially harmful online content (Department of Justice). Four areas of potential reform include: 1) Incentivizing Online Platforms to Address Illicit Content, 2) Clarifying Federal Government Enforcement Capabilities to Address Unlawful Content, 3) Promoting Competition, and 4) Promoting Open Discourse and Greater Transparency. The most popular among US citizens and politicians is amending the text of Section 230(c)(2) to clarify the text to change “otherwise objectionable” language to “unlawful” and “promotes terrorism.” This will remove the blanket protection for Big Tech companies and hold them more accountable for the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms. While the government can adjust the text, another solution is to increase regulatory oversight from non-governmental agencies.
Section 230 has served as a “pillar of internet free speech” (Vox) which is enshrined by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While this right must be safeguarded for American democracy, additional enhanced regulation and accountability by Big Tech platforms can be achieved.
Categories: Science & Tech
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