All this week we’re talking about what regulation of the tech industry could look like. Lawmakers are examining how companies manage online content, including whether Section 230, which shields platforms from liability for what users post, needs a closer look.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has been outspoken on this issue, says his constituents often complain to him about “censorship” on social media platforms. “Marketplace Tech” host Kimberly Adams sat down with Grassley and asked him what Congress should do about the law. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Chuck Grassley: Before I answer your question, I’d like to give you the observation that I think that there has to be a bipartisan agreement that “something needs to be done.” But there’s also a bipartisan opposition, that things aren’t this bad, we shouldn’t do it, and we might screw things up. So if your question to me is, “What can Congress do?” There’s a lot of things we can do, if there’s a will to do it. But right now, I see things pretty evenly divided.
Kimberly Adams: You are one of the few people still working in the Senate who actually signed the original piece of tech legislation more than 25 years ago, the Communications Decency Act, which included that infamous Section 230. How do you think that law still holds up today?
Grassley: The purpose has served a very good purpose. And that purpose is new ideas in 1996. And new instruments of communication, and that they needed some protection, because we thought they were so good — and we’re talking about before the words Google, Facebook, Twitter, were ever known, those weren’t words, then — to help them get started. Now that they have come to the monopolistic point of view, and control that they have, and influence they have, it seems to me it’s time to either do away with 230, or to modify 230.
Adams: How would you like to see it modified?
Grassley: I think I’d rather see it done away with.
Adams: Why do you think it needs to be completely done away with?
Grassley: The reason it was put in place in the first place, to protect new instruments getting started, is not applicable to these big platforms we have now. Now, somebody would say to you, “Well, we’ve got some little startups that need to have protection.” So then I said I’d rather do away with it than modify it. But one of the ways of modifying it would be to make exceptions for smaller organizations.
Adams: If we completely do away with Section 230, and tech companies do have to be liable for what people say on their platform, wouldn’t that just increase censorship by these tech companies?
Grassley: We’ve been warned of that. But I know how bad censorship is now, and I don’t want to make it worse.
Adams: How would removing [Section] 230 make it better? Or would it?
Grassley: Well, from the standpoint of censorship, these people, the various groups that are involved, there’s actually a feeling that they serve a public utility purpose, and they ought to be regulated that way. I don’t particularly take that point of view. But that’s one answer to your question.
Adams: What view do you take?
Grassley: What do I think?
Grassley: I think it’s gonna lead to some compromise, rather than repeals.
Adams: OK. I’d like to talk about another one of your bills that you filed this summer, the TEAM Act, Tougher Enforcement Against Monopolies, which would remove all the antitrust enforcement to the Department of Justice, away from the FTC and FCC. Why do you think it’s necessary to move that enforcement?
Grassley: I have seen, although it hasn’t been a big problem, but too often, DoJ negotiating with FTC. What should we do, and what you should do? Or, sometimes, not being able to settle it. And then actually both taking action, or maybe nobody taking action. I think that sort of competition among government agencies is not legitimate and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. So that’s the reason why you would give DoJ more of the antitrust provisions.
Adams: Would that come with more funding for the Department of Justice?
Grassley: Yes. More for the Department of Justice. But don’t forget, there’s another Klobuchar-Grassley bill that has passed the Senate and is in the House that gives them more funding by charging some mergers that are big, more, and then reducing the costs for mergers that are smaller companies.
Adams: You were talking about your reputation earlier. You also have quite a reputation for being an active user of social media. Congratulations on your new great-granddaughter, by the way.
Grassley: Oh, you keep track. You’re very up to date. Did you get the second one, today? We announced one today.
Adams: Yes, I know. I saw the photo. It was very cute.
Grassley: I think that’s the fifteenth one.
Adams: Oh my gosh. Yeah. You know, you are a very active user of social media, which kind of turns some of these ageist stereotypes, about who and how people use social media, on its head. What do you think it means to have somebody like you in front, pushing for tech regulation?
Grassley: Well, I hope I give credibility to it because I use it. I hope I give credibility to the arguments where I think it’s abused, I hope I give credibility to the arguments where it’s very useful. Because, for me, as a political leader, it gives me an opportunity to put issues out there that maybe wouldn’t otherwise get discussed as much because I think my job isn’t just to listen to people, my constituents. My job is also to, maybe, promote discussions of issues. And in a democracy you can’t have too much promotion of issues. And that’s kind of what I use Twitter for.
Correction (Nov. 11, 2021): A previous version of this story contained a transcription error in Grassley’s description of how he wants Section 230 changed. The text has been corrected.
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