(Personally, I think TBB is dead wrong here, and their opinion is actually dangerous. I’m unconvinced that UGC-centric websites should or even CAN be regulated like a utility. Dillon’s redactive quoting of §230 in the closing remark belies bad faith. I’m leaving this post tagged as “draft” because I haven't properly expressed my thoughts here, but I am archiving Dillon’s statement in full because I had a seriously hard time finding the clip a few weeks ago, and have a sneaking suspicion his statement is destined for the memory-hole. (P.S.: my disagreement with TBB is not a political stance. There are other “right-wing” website operators, such as Andrew Torba, who hold the opposite stance on this, who I do agree with. In fact, I have not yet seen any “right-wing” operators of UGC-centric websites — forums, ActivityPub nodes, etc. — who support reforming §230; it’s only Republican politicians and other people who have never hosted a UGC-centric website that seem to think such a reform is either desirable or possible without it devolving into a soup sandwich. (Anyway, /rant; I'll get on with the transcript.)))
Transcribed from Forbes, youtube.com/video/O4WJbOKQOfM (1:37), adapted slightly for the Web.
My name is Seth Dillon. I'm the CEO of The Babylon Bee, a popular humor site that satirizes real-world events and public figures.
Our experience with Big Tech censorship dates back to 2018, when Facebook started working with “fact-checkers” to crack down on the spread of “misinformation”. We published a headline that read “CNN Purchases Industrial-Size Washing Machine to Spin The News Before Publication”. Snopes rated that story “False”, prompting Facebook to threaten us with a permanent ban.
Since then, our jokes have been repeatedly “fact-checked”, flagged for “hate speech”, and removed for “incitement of violence”, resulting in a string of [platform moderation] warnings and a drastic reduction in our reach. Even our e-mail service has suspended us for spreading “harmful misinformation”. We found ourselves taking breaks from writing jokes to go on TV and defend our right to tell them in the first place. That’s an awkward position to be in as humorists in a free society.
Last year, we made a joke about Rachel Levine, a transgender health admiral [Assistant Secretary for Health] in the Biden administration. USA Today had named Levine “Woman of the Year”, so we fired back, in defense of women and sanity, with this satirical headline: “The Babylon Bee’s Man of the Year is Rachel Levine”. Twitter was not amused. They locked our account for “hateful conduct”, and we spent the next eight months in “Twitter jail” [with platform posting privileges revoked]. We learned the hard way that censorship guards the narrative, not the truth. In fact, it guards the narrative at the expense of the truth.
All the more outrageous was Twitter’s lip-service commitment to “free expression”. Twitter’s mission, they write, is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information and to express their opinions and beliefs without barriers”. As promising as that sounds, it rings hollow when you consider all the barriers that we — and so many others — have encountered. The comedian’s job is to poke holes in the popular narrative. If the popular narrative is off-limits, then comedy itself is off-limits, and that’s basically where we find ourselves today. Our speech is restricted to the point where we can’t even joke about the insane ideas that are being imposed on us from the top down. The only reason Twitter is now an exception is [that] the world’s richest man [Elon Musk] took matters into his own hands and “declared comedy legal again”. We should all be thankful that he did. The most offensive comedy is harmless when compared with even the most well-intentioned censorship.
I hope we can all agree that we shouldn’t have to depend on benevolent billionares to safeguard speech; that’s a function of the law. But the law only protects against government censorship; it hasn’t caught up to the fact that the vast majority of public discourse now takes place on private platforms. But where is the law that protects us from [the owners of those platforms]? The lovers of censorship will tell [us] “there can be no such law; the constitution won’t allow it.” But they’re wrong, and their arguments fail. I only have time to deal with a few of them, very briefly.
(1) They [claim] “private companies are free to do what they want.”
That’s nonsense, especially when applied to companies that serve a critical public function. A transportation service can’t ban passengers based on their viewpoints, nor can telecom providers; under “common carrier” [legal] doctrine, they’re required to treat everyone equally. That precedent applies comfortably to big tech. The argument that “only the government can be guilty of censorship” falls short, because it fails to make a distinction between the way things are, and the way they should be. If these platforms are “the modern public square”, as the Supreme Court has described them, then speech rights should be protected there, even if they presently are not. The current state of affairs being what thay are is not a good argument for failing to take action to improve them. But, beyond that, these platforms have explicitly promised free expression “without barriers”. To give us anything less than that is fraud.
(2) They [claim] “these platforms have a 1st amendment right to censor.”
— as if censorship is a form of protected speech [—] it isn’t; censorship is a form of conduct. The state has always been able to regulate conduct. The idea that “censorship is speech” was forcefully rejected by the 5th circuit court of appeals in their recent decision to uphold an anti-discrimination law in Texas. The court mocked the idea that “buried somewhere in the enumerated right to free speech lies a corporation’s unenumerated right to muzzle speech”. No such right exists. And how could it? The claim that “censorship is speech” is as nonsensical as saying “war is peace” or “freedom is slavery”.
(3) They [claim] “these platforms are like newspapers; they can’t be forced to print anything they don’t want to”.
But they aren’t like newspapers; they aren’t curating every piece of content they host, and they aren’t expressing themselves when they host it. They’re merely conduits for the speech of others. That’s how they’ve repeatedly described themselves, including in court proceedings, and that’s how Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act] defines them.
As a final point, I think it’s important to acknowledge that a call for an end to censorship is not a call for an end to content moderation (some will try to make that claim). But §230 gives these platforms clearance to moderate “lewd, obscene, and unlawful” speech, and anti-discrimination legislation would respect that. The only thing it would prevent is viewpoint discrimination. And such prevention would not be unconstitutional, because it would only regulate platforms’ conduct; it would neither compel nor curb their speech.