U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) holds an unusual place in the brief history of the internet: He's the leading congressional critic of tech giants like Facebook and YouTube, but he also crafted the law that shields them from responsibility for the lies spewed on their platforms.
In an interview with Esquire this week, Wyden examines that paradox—and says he'd vote for free speech again.
"I would like to make clear that government shouldn't regulate content, as a principle," he tells Esquire. "I would like the big tech companies to do more to step up and deal with the slime that's on their platform. The companies are clearly capable of doing it when they think it helps their bottom line."
The Esquire interview covers some familiar territory: Wyden's family roots in spyycraft, and his role in a national "techlash." But it spotlights Wyden's role in passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which freed web platforms from responsibility for the speech of their users.
"Section 230 is why YouTube isn't deluged with copyright suits and Reddit isn't responsible for the often noxious utterances of its redditors," Esquire writer Adam Elder explains, "thereby allowing a social-media platform such as Facebook to become one of the world's most valuable companies. This law also trusted websites to self-police and remove any objectionable material without penalty."
Wyden's outsized role as a watchdog of technology has shifted over the years. He found his niche in the Senate by digging into government surveillance and illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens by the CIA.
But increasingly, the bigger threats to American democracy come from the private sector: Racist and reactionary myths get spread on social media platforms such as Facebook, and those same companies play fast and loose with users' personal data—which often gets used to sell them more lies. (It's what New York Times writer Sarah Jeong described as "a scammer's paradise" in a WW profile this week.)
Wyden has previously pledged to seek criminal penalties for tech CEOs who allow data breeches. In his new interview, he hints at new revelations of data abuses. Read it here.