In the name of targetting prominent critics of vaccines, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) has proposed a bill that would revoke liability protections from online platforms that spread so-called "misinformation." Klobuchar's bill, unveiled Thursday, would create an exception to Section 230, the 1996 law that shields online platforms from liability for user-created content, in order to combat "health misinformation that is created or developed through the interactive computer service." In plain English: If a social media site like Facebook or Twitter used its algorithm to amplify the spread of anti-vaccine posts, for example, then the site itself could be sued over that content.
The carve-out would be a narrow one, applying only during declared public health emergencies. During such an emergency, the Health Misinformation Act would give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to determine what counts as "misinformation." Courts would have to determine a website's liability if anyone brought a lawsuit.
Actually dragging Facebook into court isn't really the goal, of course. Revoking, even in a very narrow way, the broad liability protections offered by Section 230 would give platforms a powerful incentive to proactively police content for anything that might upset the public health authorities.
In other words, what Klobuchar is proposing is more of a protection racket than an actual mechanism to combat the spread of misleading or inaccurate information about vaccines.
I've said it ad nauseum. S230 discourse isn't about what s230 actually protects (which is frustrating as a lawyer). It's just a protection racket.
"Nice business model. Be a shame if sovereign risk happened to it. Anyway, we'd like it if you would…"
— WolfLawyer (@thewolflawyer) July 22, 2021
Unfortunately, Klobuchar's proposal is likely to get support from the White House, as President Joe Biden has signalled support for cracking down on social media and claimed Facebook is "killing people" by not doing more to suppress anti-vaccine posts. But the administration's plans to limit online speech about public health don't stop there, as Reason's Jacob Sullum explained earlier this week:
This censorship by proxy is especially troubling because the "misinformation" that offends Biden and [Surgeon General Vivek] Murthy is not limited to verifiably false statements about COVID-19 vaccines, such as claims that they cause infertility or alter human DNA. It also includes messages that are accurate but "misleading," which could mean they discourage vaccination by emphasizing small risks, noting that vaccines are not completely effective, or raising questions about the methodology of vaccine studies.
Nor is the "misinformation" targeted by the Biden administration confined to speech about vaccines. Murthy is also concerned about messages that might encourage people to "reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing," which would encompass even good-faith skepticism about the effectiveness of those safeguards.
There's also the logistical question of determining what actually counts as "misinformation." In the early days of the pandemic, the official position of the U.S. government—distributed through official channels including press conferences and the Twitter account of then–Surgeon General Jerome Adams—was that Americans should not wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19. Was that misinformation? Should Adams be banned from Twitter for saying it? Similarly, the idea that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab was initially discarded as a conspiracy theory before eventually gaining significant mainstream traction. Should all discussion of that theory have been suppressed for the past 16 months? (China certainly would agree that it should.)
Biden, Klobuchar, and others should stop blaming free speech on the internet for all manner of social problems. Carving away at the foundational law upon which the modern internet is built won't meaningfully change the trajectory of the pandemic, but it will give government greater control over everything posted online.
A Massachusetts-based startup claims to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in battery technology that could allow for cheap storage of energy on the electrical grid. Rather than using lithium, the batteries being developed by Form Energy Inc. would store power in iron pellets that are both far cheaper and more abundant, The Wall Street Journal reports:
For a lithium-ion battery cell, the workhorse of electric vehicles and today's grid-scale batteries, the nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese minerals used currently cost between $50 and $80 per kilowatt-hour of storage, according to analysts.
Using iron, Form believes it will spend less than $6 per kilowatt-hour of storage on materials for each cell. Packaging the cells together into a full battery system will raise the price to less than $20 per kilowatt-hour, a level at which academics have said renewables plus storage could fully replace traditional fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
A battery capable of cheaply discharging power for days has been a holy grail in the energy industry, due to the problem that it solves and the potential market it creates.
Financial backers of Form Energy include Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, the Journal notes. Billionaires might be good for something after all, turns out.
Everyone seems to be worried about inflation after government data showed that prices have risen by a whopping 5.4 percent since last June, the highest year-over-year rate since 2008.
But what is inflation and why does it happen? James Dorn, the Cato Institute's vice president for monetary studies, has a useful primer on the causes and consequences of persistently rising prices. Most inflation is caused "by excessive increases in the money supply," he writes, "but it's not as simple as it sounds."
Also: Read Greg Ip on the difference between "good" inflation and "bad" inflation—and on the reasons why the U.S. is currently experiencing a bit of both.
• Mississippi is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in order to overturn lower court rulings that struck down a state law banning abortion after 15 weeks.
• Some state-level Republicans are eyeing new restrictions on ballot initiatives and referendums, the directly democratic mechanism that allowed issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization to gain a foothold in American politics.
• The new Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States might be preparing to recommend term limits for the country's most powerful judges.
• The Senate might throw another $25 billion into the black hole that is the Pentagon's budget.
• The Oakland Athletics baseball team is infrastructure, according to California's newest budget.
• How many licks does it take to get to the center of Mars?
Thanks to a NASA robot that landed on Mars in 2018, scientists now have a map of the red planet's inner workings down to its core, the first ever made of another planet. https://t.co/hxSK67LEDl
— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 23, 2021
• After a yearlong delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Summer Olympics officially begin today in Tokyo. The opening ceremonies, like the rest of the competition, are taking place in front of a nearly empty stadium.