A second constitutional question arises from the First Amendment. The companies brush this aside because they are private and the amendment prohibits only government censorship. Yet one must worry that the government has privatized censorship. If that sounds too dramatic, read Section 230(c)(2) again. It protects tech companies from liability for restricting various material “whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” Congress makes explicit that it is immunizing companies from liability for speech restrictions that would be unconstitutional if lawmakers themselves imposed them.
Seventeenth-century censorship, which the First Amendment clearly prohibited, was also imposed largely through private entities, such as universities and the Stationers’ Company, England’s printers trade guild. Whereas privatized censorship then was often mandatory, the contemporary version is voluntary. But the tech companies are protected for restricting Congress’s list of disfavored materials, and this means that the government still sets the censorship agenda.
Some of the material that can be restricted under Section 230 is clearly protected speech. Consider its enumeration of “objectionable” material. The vagueness of this term would be enough to make the restriction unconstitutional if Congress directly imposed it. That doesn’t mean the companies are violating the First Amendment, but it does suggest that the government, in working through private companies, is abridging the freedom of speech.