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Collins proposes amendments to online communication law over social media censorship
Doug Collins 2018
Doug Collins

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has introduced legislation he hopes can reduce censorship on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Collins has joined U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, in introducing amendments to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The section, enacted in 1996, provides online platforms with immunity from liability for third-party content. It was first intended to allow for websites to become public forums for people to share their views, Collins said.

“Section 230 was the safe harbor provision that really, in the nascent part of the internet, was designed to help people comment and have a bulletin board effect, so that everybody, like the public square, could comment however they wanted to,” Collins said.

But technology companies have gotten more powerful since then, Collins said.

“They are now to the point where they are content generators,” he said. “They are not simply content promoters.”

Collins said he has seen technology companies use Section 230 to justify removal of some content.

“You’re no longer the bulletin board where everybody can put up what they want. You’re deciding who gets to put up on the bulletin board,” Collins said of his conversations with tech executives.

Section 230 in its current form states that any provider or user of “an interactive computer service” shall not be held liable for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” Collins’ and Gosar’s proposal includes replacing the phrase “or otherwise objectionable” with “unlawful, or that promotes violence or terrorism.”

The proposal also includes adding a section to protect “any action taken to provide users with the option to restrict access to any other material, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

Collins said he hopes the proposal can allow people to see varied perspectives online so “they’re not dependent on a company in California to tell them what they’re going to see or not.” He said he was locked out of his Twitter account for about 36 hours in July and is still unsure why.

Collins also said there is an “honest debate” about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, but content promoting the drug has been removed. President Donald Trump retweeted a video promoting hydroxychloroquine that was removed by Twitter and Facebook for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation.

Tom Preston, professor of communication at the University of North Georgia, said some believe that the term “objectionable” in the section is too vague.

“There’s concern, which is reflected in the amendment that Collins is co-sponsoring, that ‘objectionable’ has been applied by the internet companies to be applied too broadly and also censor political speech,” Preston said.

And media and technology have evolved since the law was passed, Preston said.

“Two things that were not envisioned when this section was originally written are how few companies would control the technical aspects of the media, and the technology itself wasn’t conceived of,” he said.

Some see a lack of competition in technology, Preston said. For example, he said, Google has become the go-to search engine online, eclipsing earlier websites such as AltaVista, and Facebook now owns Instagram. 

Preston said he would encourage people to familiarize themselves both with the proposed amendments to Section 230 and Supreme Court rulings such as the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the court ruled that speech can be restricted if it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

“Even though there’s still a little bit of room for interpretation, the (proposed) amendment is intended to make it a little more specific than ‘objectionable,’” Preston said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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