Ron Wyden – Knight Foundation

Knowing what you know now about the internet and how your venture turned out, what do you wish you had done differently from the beginning?

In 1996, Republican Congressman Chris Cox and I wrote a law now known as Section 230. At its core, Section 230 is simple: it states that the person who creates content is responsible for it. This means that websites can choose to promote some content, limit other content and block the stuff that goes beyond common decency. It took the principles of the First Amendment and enshrined them in a clear rule that set the temperature to grow free speech and innovation online.    

I would argue that no law in a generation has done more than Section 230 to build online communities and promote informed, productive and equitable communication online. Section 230 was instrumental in fostering new avenues where regular Americans, particularly those from marginalized communities, could speak and be heard. When politicians threatened LGBTQ+ sites with internet content regulations, for example, Section 230 and the First Amendment fended off the government’s attempts to stop gay and transgender people from making their own online communities. Predictably, LGBTQ+ communities have also been some of the early victims of the first effort to change Section 230, a law intended to stop sex trafficking called SESTA/FOSTA. 

No law is perfect, of course, and I am open to changes that truly improve discourse for everyone online. But, after spending the years since Donald Trump’s election searching for ways to improve the state of online discourse, I don’t regret that Chris and I succeeded in protecting free speech online, then and now.  

I firmly reject the notion that improving our national discourse requires changing Section 230 or the First Amendment to give the government more power over speech. Instead, I wish I had been equally successful at protecting the other essential elements of the open internet: access, competition and personal privacy.

One of the internet’s strengths is its ability to give a megaphone to new voices that don’t own a television station or printing press. Digital activism has made grassroots, progressive politics a stronger force than we’ve seen in more than half a century. It has put a spotlight on police violence against Black Americans and allowed LGBTQ+ communities to organize in ways that weren’t possible before. It has allowed journalists of color to call out their own organizations’ coverage of race. But unless all Americans have the underlying infrastructure they need to access these communications tools, their promise falls short. And right now, far too many Americans still lack reliable, affordable high-speed internet access.

An aggressive national broadband strategy that ensured connectivity and affordability for all Americans would give more people access to communications tools and allow more diverse speakers and conversation online. There isn’t space here for a comprehensive broadband discussion, but, in a nutshell, it will take a combination of government and private sector investment and accountability, municipal broadband deployment and support for families that can’t afford access. Ensuring that every American can simply get on the internet is a baseline condition for equitable online communication.

Meaningful access to the internet also means ensuring that the digital world is accessible to Americans with disabilities and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the same way that physical infrastructure must. It’s clear that companies, the executive branch and Congress, myself included, should have done much more to stand up for the digital rights of people with disabilities. There is a lot of work still to do on that front.

The second essential element is competition. When a few massive companies control too much speech, it’s inevitable that fewer voices are heard. I fear the dominant position of big tech, big cable and big media companies today is choking off innovation, and leaving Americans with fewer avenues to learn about the world. It is tremendously encouraging that President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress are bringing new energy to antitrust enforcement, which is essential to giving consumers choice online. If our antitrust agencies had adopted this bolder approach three decades earlier, our national discourse would be far richer. For example, in the current tech and social media landscape, which is dominated by a few giant players, a single platform’s decision to promote or downrank a video can have an outsize impact on the distribution of information. With more competition, not only would there be more forums for discourse, but there would also be more innovation in how those conversations happen.

Another important element of fair competition is net neutrality, which ensures all bits are created equal. It says that once you have access to the internet, you get to go where you want, when you want and how you want. 

It’s good for consumers, who can learn and communicate and enjoy entertainment however they want. And it’s good for small businesses, because a free and open internet means unfettered access to more customers. 

Mega-mergers involving telecom and entertainment companies that limit competition also threaten to fracture the internet into small bundles that cost big money. Without net neutrality, consumers are already facing rising bills for entertainment and information, and small businesses can’t compete with established publishers online.

Finally, I wish my colleagues and I had secured strong protection for consumers’ personal information at the dawn of the internet era. Being able to use services privately, without fear that your sensitive data will be sold or shared with the government, foreign adversaries and predatory corporations without your knowledge is essential to free expression online.

Users have a right to speak privately, see medical providers privately and read controversial information without fear that their actions will be exposed to the world. That’s why I have pushed so hard against dragnet government surveillance, which chills free expression. That’s why I have written a tough consumer privacy law to give consumers the ability to stop corporations from sharing their private details with a vast network of data brokers, advertisers and other shady firms, and that’s why I will fight tooth and nail to protect strong encryption, to ensure private communications stay secure from hackers, stalkers and other criminals.

As Congress and policymakers consider how to improve our online environment, Americans must not accept the perverse bargain that a healthy national discourse requires sacrificing free speech. I urge them to do the hard work of addressing the deeper structural issues of access, competition and privacy to ensure the internet reaches its full potential for all Americans. 

Lessons From the First Internet Ages

What is the future of the internet? Thirty years after the creation of the first web page, what have we learned about the impact of the internet on communication, connection, and democracy?   Join the Knight Foundation for Lessons from the First Internet Ages, a virtual symposium that will explore and evaluate what key figures in the development […]

October 11, 2021
Lessons From the First Internet Ages