The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google, the first time the justices have heard a case involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Whichever way the court rules, Congress will likely respond by looking to amend the law, which will be overseen by the House Commerce Committee led by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wa.). Conservatives concerned about Big Tech censorship should worry about McMorris Rodgers’ power over the matter.
The first prominent Republicans to address Big Tech censorship were Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Cruz in April 2018 asked Mark Zuckerberg why Facebook should have protections as a neutral conduit under Section 230 when the company censors Americans based on their constitutionally protected speech. In June 2019, Hawley introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which would have required viewpoint neutrality for dominant platforms that receive Section 230 immunity. Section 230 explicitly is premised on the idea that the platforms “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.” The platforms clearly don’t provide that kind of forum.
McMorris Rodgers rebuked her Republican colleagues over their solution to censorship.
McMorris Rodgers delivered a speech at a hearing on Section 230 in October 2019. She criticized “colleagues on my side of the aisle” (undoubtedly referring to Cruz and Hawley) for wanting “a big government mandate to dictate free speech or ensure fairness online.”
There have been some calls—from both sides of the aisle—for a Big Government to mandate or dictate free speech or ensure fairness online. These proposals are not consistent with the #FirstAmendment. pic.twitter.com/wNVnf2DJ87
— CathyMcMorrisRodgers (@cathymcmorris) October 16, 2019
She compared this to the FCC’s old “Fairness Doctrine,” which required local radio stations to carry “equal time” for both sides. The now-repealed Fairness Doctrine required all broadcasters, even small radio stations which only had a few hours of political programming per day, to provide a venue for both sides. The broadcasters would have to pay to produce this content themselves, with very limited time, and they did not have Section 230 immunity. This is obviously not the same thing as a monopolistic platform with nearly infinite content capabilities being required to respect free speech. While this comparison is completely off-base, tech lobbyists frequently deploy it when defending censorship policies.
McMorris Rodgers not only argued that Big Tech companies should have the right to censor, she called it a positive good. She praised the leftist propaganda on Wikipedia as the product of “mostly user-generated and moderated content.” She said that we need to “encourage constructive discussions on the responsible use of content moderation” and protect Big Tech’s congressionally approved “sword” to rid sites of “harmful content.”
She concluded that any attempts to prevent Big Tech from censorship are not “consistent with the First Amendment.” In other words: the First Amendment protects a monopoly’s ability to censor Americans, but not Americans’ right to free speech. In reality, the Supreme Court has held: “The First Amendment’s command that government not impede the freedom of speech does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that private interests not restrict . . . the free flow of information and ideas.”
McMorris Rodgers’s views are 100 percent at odds with conservatives. Where did she get these ideas? As noted, all of her arguments echo comments made by Big Tech lobbyists. Interestingly enough, her current staff is filled with such swamp creatures. Timothy Kurth, who is counsel for the Innovation, Data, and Commerce subcommittee (which oversees Big Tech), joined the Commerce Committee after being a lobbyist for Verizon and AT&T.
Kate O’Connor, who is counsel for the telecom subcommittee, joined that committee right as McMorris gave her pro-censorship speech. O’Connor worked for the National Telecommunications and Information Agency under David Redl, who was forced to resign by the Trump Administration in 2019. Redl was later replaced by free speech advocate Adam Candeub, who petitioned the FCC to reform Section 230 for viewpoint neutrality—the specific policy that McMorris Rodgers spoke out against. Redl is now a lobbyist for Apple, Amazon, Comcast, and importantly Netchoice—a trade organization representing Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to allow them to censor—and is the plaintiff against Florida and Texas’s social media censorship laws.
Nate Hodson, McMorris Rodgers’ chief of staff, worked for Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaign and the House Republican Conference under former Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
As it has become politically untenable for Republicans to defend tech censorship, McMorris Rodgers has made a few noises about it. She said in December 2021, “Big Tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook used to provide a promising platform for free speech and robust debates, but they no longer operate as public squares—they do not promote the battle of ideas.” She cosponsored a bill to address the government’s pressure to censor tech platforms.
While we should welcome any change of heart, her adoption of Big Tech talking points to attack fellow Republicans and her coziness with lobbyists shows she can’t be trusted on this matter. The conservative grassroots needs to hold her feet to the fire to ensure that she will not do the bidding of Big Tech and Telecom. The GOP has talked long enough about the problem of censorship. It’s time to act.