The Heritage Foundation is a fine institution that does excellent work on a number of topics. Unfortunately, it is also one of several conservative institutions in D.C. that takes money from Google — and it shows.
Yesterday, the think tank published a hitpiece about Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)’s bill to end political censorship by big social media platforms.
Sen. Hawley, a freshman Senator elected in 2018, has become one of the most vocal critics of big tech in the upper chamber. His bill, which would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), is a bold attempt to transform his rhetoric into action.
Hawley’s bill is called the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, and it takes aim at the most troublesome part of Section 230, the legal immunities that shield tech companies from lawsuits arising from the “good faith” censorship of content.
These are the provisions that allow tech platforms to disintegrate the social media presence of everyone from political activists to bustling online businesses with less due process involved than eviction from a neighborhood parking lot.
The bill is measured and nuanced in its approach. It takes care not to hurt small competitors to the established Silicon Valley giants. It would only apply to tech companies that have more than 30 million monthly active users in the U.S., 300 million worldwide, or more than $500 million in annual revenue.
Still, The Heritage Foundation is having none of it.
In an article attacking the bill, senior research fellow Diane Katz warns of dire consequences if Sen. Hawley’s bill were to pass.
Katz warns that absent the legal protections of Section 230, companies would risk a “barrage of lawsuits” if they are unable to satisfy regulators with their content moderation practices.
“Such a threat would likely provoke some platforms to either block all but the blandest content or refrain from curation altogether—and subject the public to the extremes of human depravity.”
The “extremes of human depravity?” What, like 4chan? Sorry, but that’s already allowed on the internet!
Plus, Sen. Hawley’s bill would only strip tech companies of their immunity to moderate a very specific type of content — political speech. It says nothing about “depravity,” which tech platforms would still be able to filter behind features like Google’s Safe Search.
Also, Katz seems to imply that tech companies aren’t already allowing “depravity” on their platforms, so long as it fits in with their worldview — note, videos promoting “Drag Queen Story Hour,” in which crossdressers read stories to children, can easily be found on YouTube. Unlike PragerU’s videos, they aren’t even hidden behind an age filter.
Katz also says that it is an “overwhelming task” for tech companies to prove the absence of bias to regulators. “Requiring tech companies to convey their proprietary intellectual property to government (to prove they are not acting in a discriminatory fashion) is an insupportable violation of property rights.”
This is a strange argument — companies have long been required to prove they are not acting in a discriminatory fashion. Does Katz support the repealing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? It would certainly make her position consistent, if a little bold.
All the bill does is add political viewpoint to the list of categories that tech companies are not allowed to discriminate against. Honestly, this is something that should go beyond just tech companies — the concept of viewpoint discrimination is a massive wrench in the works of Diversity Inc., the kryptonite for workplace SJWs who love to bully and harass their conservative colleagues (especially in Silicon Valley).
It’s also highly necessary in a world where a few companies control virtually all communication, political or otherwise, on the internet. As Ann Coulter put it:
There is no "free market solution" to 3 companies, more powerful than any government, controlling Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Is anyone at Heritage under 60? https://t.co/83mYwgdAAp
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) November 19, 2019
There’s a missing disclosure in Katz’s article — the fact that The Heritage Foundation takes contributions from Google. “Substantial amounts,” according to Google’s own transparency report.
It’s an important detail to disclose, because the article concludes with a talking point beloved of big tech advocates in D.C., namely that attempts to regulate Silicon Valley to stop political bias are no different to the Fairness Doctrine, a widely derided law from before the 1980s which forced broadcasters to be politically “balanced” in their coverage.
This argument is one of the top lines NetChoice, a D.C-based, conservative-focused lobby group that counts Google, Facebook, and Twitter among its clients. In January, NetChoice VP Carl Szabo testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about why online platforms shouldn’t be subject to antitrust investigations — and the Fairness Doctrine comparison was at the forefront of his argument.
The Internet Association, the largest trade association representing Silicon Valley firms, takes a similar line. In an op-ed aimed at conservatives, the organization’s president wrote that new internet regulations could “spark a worse, more stringent version of the Fairness Doctrine.”
The Heritage Foundation is a think tank, and a think tank survives on the basis of donations. Still though, when its argument against Sen. Hawley’s bill is the same weak comparison made by Silicon Valley’s D.C. lobbyists in debates around completely different regulations, it’s hard to ignore.
The counter-argument? It hardly needs to be made, but obviously the businesses affected by the Fairness Doctrine never had anything like the legal immunities granted to tech companies that Sen. Hawley’s bill proposes to tie to political neutrality. Indeed, they still don’t, and that puts them at a massive disadvantage when competing with tech giants that have become publishers in all but name.
In a comment, Heritage Foundation media director Greg Scott said disclosure of the think tank’s Google funding was unnecessary because it didn’t affect their positions.
“For the same reason we didn’t [add a disclosure] when we publicly criticized Google/YouTube earlier this month for censoring a very popular Heritage video and when we called Google out for dissolving its AI board earlier in the year – because it is irrelevant. Total corporate support amounts to less than 2 percent of contributions and has exactly zero bearing on our policy positions.”
“No one should be surprised that Heritage favors consumer empowerment, opposes government intervention, and champions the free market. We always have – long before Google existed – and always will operate according to a core set of principles when evaluating policy proposals. The Heritage Foundation’s authority rests on the quality, rigor, depth, and independent nature of our research and analysis. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
Are you an insider at Google, Facebook, Twitter or any other tech company who wants to confidentially reveal wrongdoing or political bias at your company? Reach out to Allum Bokhari at his secure email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News.