In a gambit that seems designed to facilitate her elevation into Republican leadership, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is abandoning her longstanding defense of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and moving towards a supposedly “Trumpier” position of supporting reform or repeal of it.
Last month, Politico reported that “McMorris Rodgers told Republicans she’s looking at ‘scrapping Section 230 for the biggest tech companies’ while retaining it for smaller up-and-comers.”
While some will undoubtedly cheer this—McMorris Rodgers has been tough to convert to anything resembling a tech-skeptical position, and perhaps not surprisingly given that tech is a big industry in Washington— this might be a miscalculation on her part.
Not only is there the fact that increasing amounts of data shows that conservative content actually performs far better than progressive content on Facebook, news of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and aim of restoring some “canceled” accounts raises questions about the practical utility of changing 230 (and that’s assuming you accept the premise that this would facilitate more of the kind of speech conservatives want to see anyway). Ultimately, while 230 provides a shield against costly litigation, it ultimately does only that—and getting rid of it won’t change a First Amendment right of any social media platform going to associate with whatever lawful speech a platform wishes to, or wishes not to, through hosting, banning, or moderating content. In addition, of course, there is the risk that trying to guarantee access to sites for conservative purposes could ultimately be leveraged by liberals to force pornography, gender-transition-theory-promoting or other content a lot of conservatives object to onto sites including former President Trump’s TRUTHSocial.
Nope, there is actually a bigger problem: While some of the GOP base desperately wants to see all GOP leadership champion 230 reform/repeal, the kind of reform/repeal conservatives want is diametrically opposite to that which progressives want. While conservatives want less banning of right-wing figures from social media, Democrats want more. That might not make the kind of 230 reform McMorris Rodgers is talking about unpassable in a House of Representatives with a big GOP majority (like what we’ll probably see in January 2023). But it will make it unmovable in the closely divided Senate, even if Republicans pick up seats. Ultimately, to pass this kind of 230 reform in the Senate, you’d probably need at least 58 Republican senators to beat the filibuster.
This all begs the question: Other than trying to make nice with the anti-Big Tech warriors in the GOP caucus via the policy proposal they bleat about most loudly, why actually bother? 230 reform is an essentially undeliverable goal. And one thing we know about the Trumpiest of the GOP base is that they expect politicians to deliver—Trump did, even if what he delivered on proved insufficiently popular to win him a second term.
There’s actually a smarter card that McMorris Rodgers could play here and achieve the same desired result, but actually get a better policy win while she’s at it; another way to stick it to Big Tech that McMorris Rodgers could champion, and which Republicans and Democrats could rally around.
That policy, or way to go after Big Tech, would be federal privacy legislation.
Consumers like it because they’re sick of Big Tech treating them as the product.
Republicans like it because it gets rid of an anti-business patchwork of multiple different state laws—and because it deprives woke Big Tech companies of a revenue source (selling ads using your data to advertisers).
Democrats like it because they can champion consumers, a civil liberty they believe in very expansively, and they can also stick it to big corporations.
Almost everyone in this scenario is a winner, whereas pursuing 230 reforms leaves both parties—and their leadership— losers.
This kind of push is obviously not going to ingratiate McMorris Rodgers with her former donors in Seattle Big Tech land. But at this point, nothing will—she seems long gone in terms of helping to advance their causes and functioning as a very friendly voice in Congress.
But it seems like focusing in on privacy legislation would be a lot smarter given the political climate of the nation and given the objective of actually delivering, as opposed to demagoguing, which McMorris Rodgers has always been known for.