This month, powerful tech companies took unprecedented steps to censor free speech. In the days after the deadly Capitol Hill riot, Facebook suspended President Trump’s account, saying it posed a “risk of further violence.” Twitter went a step further and permanently banned the President’s account, along with 70,000 others they described as a security risk. Snapchat also closed the President’s account while platforms like Reddit and Twitch began limiting Trump-related content. In addition, Parler, a platform popular among conservatives, was forced offline after Apple, Google, and Amazon removed the platform from their app stores and withdrew support services.
This tidal wave of censorship crosses a serious threshold. Conservatives have long complained about censorship on social media, but these companies have never gone this far. Their actions drew sharp criticism from our European allies, the President of Mexico, and even the liberal ACLU, who recognize this could lead to further suppression of speech. I am concerned these acts of censorship will set a dangerous trend that could threaten free speech and divide our nation further.
The Internet Is the Public Square
In the internet’s early days, most online discussions were confined to chatrooms and blogs. These forums made up a very small part of the “public square,” which had been dominated by local newspapers, television, and our personal interactions. If censorship ever occurred online, it did not affect most of our lives.
More than 20 years later, the situation has changed dramatically. The internet is now a major center for public discourse, and the public square now includes the vast terrain of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms. Because so much of our discourse now takes place online, platforms have an obligation to promote and protect our tradition of free speech. Tech companies are increasingly failing at this, and their recent actions against the President and thousands of users represent a new low.
Tech Monopolies Must Be Challenged
These acts of censorship would not be so consequential if tech giants had real competition. Unfortunately, they do not. An elite handful of giant tech companies now dominates the marketplace beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Their footprint in our society is so massive and their resources so vast that they can snuff out any small competitor, like Parler, that threatens their hold on the market. This monopolistic behavior, coupled with the worsening restrictions on free speech, calls for congressional action.
Last year, I convened the heads of three major tech companies – Facebook, Twitter, and Google – for a hearing that addressed online bias and censorship. Senators had the opportunity to grill these CEOs and discuss potential changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from being sued over content posted by users. I have drafted legislation that would modify Section 230 to give platforms strong incentives to protect free speech. I will introduce this legislation soon as the lead Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.
Congress should go further and take a serious look at anti-trust issues surrounding these tech firms. I am encouraged that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have already begun doing this. Tech companies who take collective action against competitors, like Parler, need to know that they are playing with fire and positioning themselves for trust-busting. We must fight to promote competition in the technology sector so that our nation can benefit from the best ideas new innovators have to offer.