I wrote a syndicated newspaper column yesterday. Here it is.
While the mainstream media is rightfully focused on the second impeachment of President Trump and the assault on the Capitol, right wing media is obsessed with “Freedom of Speech.”
Right wing outlets are calling for action against the “censorship” of conservatives by big, liberal, tech companies after Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites banned President Trump, taking away his preferred megaphone. The radical social media platform Parler was shut down after Amazon refused to continue hosting the site.
I run a newspaper syndicate for editorial cartoons and columns. Half of America’s daily, paid-circulation newspapers subscribe to my service, which features about 75 political cartoonists and ten columnists. Sometimes I choose to “kill” a cartoon or column that I think is inappropriate, which often leads to an angry response from the creator about censorship and First Amendment rights. I always remind them that I have First Amendment rights too, and I can choose to syndicate whatever I want.
I also hear from cartoonists whom I don’t syndicate, demanding to be on my Web site as some kind of entitlement, claiming that I’m violating their rights by refusing to allow their voice to be heard. I also hear from cartoonists in nations with no press freedom about how their government censors their cartoons; they claim this is “just the same as in America” because there are editors here who kill cartoons, too.
Cartoonists don’t seem to understand that our First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press are protections only against censorship by the government, and they don’t give cartoonists a right to be reprinted in any publication or a right to avoid editors. Cartoonists don’t have the right to be syndicated, or to be reprinted in newspapers, and no one has the First Amendment right to force Twitter or Facebook to post their rants.
If I syndicate anything that violates the rights of third parties, I can be sued. Potential liability encourages people to act responsibly. President Trump wants to strike back at social media companies by repealing “Section 230,” which generally protects these companies from liability for third party content, treating the social media sites more like telephone companies that aren’t held responsible for what people say on their telephones.
Defenders of Section 230 argue that big tech can’t be expected to police the billions of posts on their sites. This is nonsense.
Social media sites may not be liable for user posts that libel or incite violence, but they are liable for copyright infringement, and there are millions of posts that violate copyrights, especially involving cartoons. Congress imposed rules on big tech in the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” (DMCA) that created a procedure for copyright holders to demand that a hosting company remove infringing content within a short time period, and if they don’t, the hosting company can be sued.
As a cartoonist and syndicate guy, I’ve filed hundreds of these “DMCA notices,” and in every case the hosting company has followed the procedure properly and responded to take down the content before their deadline. Some people complain about abuses of the DMCA system, but the system works, and it proves that tech companies can comply with millions of demands from injured third parties.
Why should tech companies have liability protections for some kinds of third party content (libel or incitement to violence) and not for others (copyright infringement)? Big tech can and should be liable for any harm they do.
The Section 230 protections for big social media companies should be repealed. But that’s not really what conservatives want, because removing these protections will make the tech companies act even more responsibly, prompting them to remove even more voices from the far right.
Calls to repeal Section 230 have been diminishing as conservatives begin to see this irony, replaced by calls for big tech monopolies to be broken up, replaced by condemnations of “censorship,” and replaced by demands for “Free Speech” that use the same goofy logic I hear from cartoonists.
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