Gonzalez v Google, Section 230 & the Future of Permissionless Innovation

by on December 9, 2022 · 0 comments

Over at Discourse magazine this week, my R Street colleague Jonathan Cannon and I have posted a new essay on how it has been “Quite a Fall for Digital Tech.” We mean that both in the sense that the last few months have witnessed serious market turmoil for some of America’s leading tech companies, but also that the political situation for digital tech more generally has become perilous. Plenty of people on the Left and the Right now want a pound of flesh from the info-tech sector, and the starting cut at the body involves Section 230, the 1996 law that shields digital platforms from liability for content posted by third parties.

With the Supreme Court recently announcing it will hear Gonzalez v. Google, a case that could significantly narrow the scope of Section 230, the stakes have grown higher. It was already the case that federal and state lawmakers were looking to chip away at Sec. 230’s protections through an endless variety of regulatory measures. But if the Court guts Sec. 230 in Gonzalez, then it will really be open season on tech companies, as lawsuits will fly at every juncture whenever someone does not like a particular content moderation decision. Cannon and I note in our new essay that,

if the court moves to weaken liability protections for digital platforms, the ramifications will be profoundly negative. While many critics today complain that the law’s liability protections have been too generous, the reality is that Section 230 has been the legal linchpin supporting the permissionless innovation model that fueled America’s commanding lead in the digital information revolution. Thanks to the law, digital entrepreneurs have been free to launch bold new ideas without fear of punishing lawsuits or regulatory shenanigans. This has boosted economic growth and dramatically broadened consumer information and communications options.

Many critics of Sec. 230 claim that reforms are needed to “rein in Big Tech.” But, ironically, gutting Sec. 230 would probably only make big tech companies even bigger because the smaller players in the market would struggle to deal with the mountains of regulations and lawsuits that would come about in its absence. Cannon and I continue on to explore what it means for the next generation of online innovators if these court cases go badly and Section 230 is scaled back or gutted:

Section 230 has been a legal cornerstone of the entire ecosystem. All the large-scale platforms we depend on for our online experience would never have gotten off the ground without its protection. […] More importantly, these platforms have relied on being able to host third-party content without fear of opening a Pandora’s box of private litigation and endless challenges from governments. By removing these protections, platforms will be forced to significantly increase their moderation practices to reduce risk of suits from zealous litigants. Besides the chilling effect this will have on speech, it also will put up a cost-prohibitive barrier for smaller entrants who lack the resources to have an army of content moderators to find and eliminate undesirable content.

The broader effect on market dynamism and the nation’s technological competitiveness will be profound as permissionless innovation is replaced by mountains of top-down permission slips. “If America’s digital sector gets kneecapped by the Supreme Court, or if new regulations or legislative proposals scale back Section 230 protections, it will be significantly more difficult for U.S. firms to continue to lead in the development and commercialization of new technologies,” we conclude.

Jump over to Discourse to read the entire piece.

Previous post:

Next post: