Black Expression, Black Protests, and Black Lives

Black Expression, Black Protests, and Black Lives

A Look at What Black People Have to Lose At the Hands of the EARN IT Act

We are living history: a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black people, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the racial reckoning that soon followed. All this in the final months of a presidential election. There has never been a more important time to fight for free speech online than now. 

This Administration’s position on this moment in history was made clear during the White House’s July 4th celebrations. Standing in a packed amphitheater in front of Mount Rushmore, President Trump delivered a divisive speech that described his presidential campaign as a battle against a “new far-left fascism” seeking to wipe out the nation’s values and history. He went on to describe protestors as “angry mobs...trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

The President made no mention of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 diagnoses and deaths among Black Americans or the validated fear that policies to open up communities will not be borne equally. Nor did he mention the images and videos of horrific police violence against Black Americans — especially the deeply disturbing killing of George Floyd — that went viral on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, sparking protests in all fifty states

Amidst that spark, social media platforms became a tool to organize our activism, amplify our voices, and share our version of current events - a phenomenon that would have been actively impeded without Section 230. Written in 1996 by former Congressman Chris Cox (R-MN) and Congressman Ron Wyden (D-OR), Section 230  fostered free speech and innovation online by establishing that users, not the website that hosts their content, are the ones responsible for what they post online. It also gave companies the ability to limit exposure to offensive content like tweets that glorify violence without fear of being sued for bias or having their site shut down. 

This past week, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020 (EARN IT Act), a law that forces online platforms to change how they moderate content online by censoring more of their users’ communications, was voted out of committee. Under the EARN IT Act, platforms would lose Section 230 protections and likely take drastic measures to mitigate their exposure. Measures that would not only limit free speech across the Internet but will disproportionately silence the voices of Black people. 

It goes without saying that even with the protections of Section 230, social media companies continue to struggle with the task of content moderation. But we have to consider the strong possibility that without Section 230, sites would either limit what users can post, to avoid being sued, or stop moderating entirely. In the first scenario, content like the videos that captured the officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck and Eric Garner’s haunting final words of “I can’t breathe,” would have been blocked from social media platforms. In a world without 230, platforms might not allow posts that are critical of the Administration’s response to the pandemic because they could be interpreted as defamatory. In the second scenario, sites would choose not to moderate at all, and thus avoid responsibility for anything their users post. These sites would be breeding grounds for false, dangerous and hateful content.

In the days leading up to one of the most important elections of our lives, we cannot support any acts by Congress that will stifle our ability to power our movements and express ourselves. The EARN IT Act endangers the momentum of our activism and our ability to lift up our own narratives.