Opinion: Changing Section 230 could restrict free speech, dampen innovation

   

Every generation, new technologies revolutionize our economy and our way of life – and regulations follow shortly after. This happened with factories, with cars, with televisions – and many of these regulations, like child labor laws and seatbelts, were absolutely necessary. But regulation is a double-edged sword. For instance, excessive regulation in the financial and healthcare industries has made both more expensive and less efficient.

This year, some lawmakers are hoping to drastically change how the internet is regulated. They have their sights set on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, called CDA 230 for short.

Section 230 could be the most important law ever written about the internet. Without it, we probably would not have seen a world wide web populated with user content. That’s everything from comments, to social media posts, to dating apps.

CDA 230  states that internet companies aren’t liable for what users say and do on their platforms, so long as the companies act responsibly to restrict illegal content. It strikes an important balance between holding internet companies accountable while also protecting the First Amendment rights of users. In other words, if you or I post something on social media, we — not the social media company — are responsible for the consequences of that post. This balance paved the way for the explosion of tech innovation these last two decades.

Yet critics claim that Section 230 gives internet companies the legal ability to restrict speech. Most recently, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said Congress should amend the law to provide “more speech.”

But altering or eliminating Section 230 would have the opposite effect. If internet companies could be sued for everything said on their platforms, then they would have no choice but to crack down on speech to avoid frivolous lawsuits. Alternatively, they would have to allow all speech protected by the First Amendment — which unfortunately includes things like hate speech.

And Section 230 protections go far beyond speech. Taking them away could stifle future tech innovation and hurt the economy. Think about it: entrepreneurs might be less enthusiastic about starting a new tech company if they knew they could be sued by every troll from every corner of the internet. And that liability increases, in lock-step with the size of your company. More posts equals more people who can sue you.

Dampening tech startup momentum up would be terrible for the economy. According to CompTIA’s yearly Cyberstates report, the tech industry employs over 11.5 million people nationwide, and has an output of $1.6 trillion, representing over nine percent of the overall economy.

Those jobs aren’t just in Silicon Valley. According to the same report, over 203,000 Missourians are employed in tech jobs, contributing $20 billion to the state economy. Not only that, Missouri is becoming something of a hot spot for tech startups in the region.

We should be passing legislation to empower entrepreneurship, not scare it away.

To make matters worse, it’s not just the tech industry that would bear the brunt if Section 230 protections are eliminated. All businesses, from larger companies to mom-and-pops on Main Street, rely on the internet for things like marketing, sales, and operations. If online ads goes away, expensive billboards become the next, best option for many small businesses.

According to the Small Business Administration, the Show-Me State had over 523,000 small businesses employing 1.1 million people in 2018.

Many small businesses operate on the slimmest of margins; if Congress damages one of their best tools – a free and open internet – many businesses could face closure.

As Congress starts debating internet regulation, protecting small businesses, job creation and economic growth should be top priorities. Senator Josh Hawley has fought to change tech regulations since his days as our Attorney General, but his proposal to weaken Section 230 is not the change we need and could end up doing more harm.

Missourians should let Senator Hawley and all of our representatives in Congress know that any regulation of the internet and data collection should stand on the side of free speech and small businesses in Missouri, not big government regulators.