Bipartisan Support for Section 230 Reform

image credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation

By Chand Bellur

May 31, 2020 at 9:00 p.m. PT

  • Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act shields tech corporations from lawsuits, considering them distributors, not publishers.
  • Many Republicans feel that section 230 allows tech companies to censor right-wing content, manufacturing a more liberal perspective.
  • Social media’s power to spread misinformation may cause Democrats to hold tech corporations responsible for their content.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in Jeopardy

Passed in 1996, the Communications Decency Act helped forge the modern-day Internet. Specifically, section 230 of the CDA absolves corporations of responsibility for their users’ content.

In the early days of the Internet, companies like AOL and CompuServe played it legally safe when it came to moderation. They engendered a laissez-faire attitude, out of the fear that deleting content would make them responsible for it. Without legal protection in place, they became the publisher by engaging with the content. Section 230 gave them that legal protection.

The Internet flourished under section 230. Most legal and tech industry experts agree that tech would not be what it is today without section 230. Unfortunately, it has also led to the widespread dissemination of misinformation. However, repealing section 230 puts tech companies in a precarious position where both the moderated and offended can sue.

Regardless of this situation, both Democrats and Republicans have section 230 in their sights. For differing reasons, politicians across the aisle seek to reform or repeal section 230.

Republicans Feel Section 230 Censors Right-Wing Movement

Section 230 of the CDA allows moderators to delete content and ban users with impunity. Although the legislation considers tech corporations to be distributors and not publishers, it also allows them to moderate content and users without fear of legal repercussions. The law doesn’t consider moderation to infer the publication of content.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump’s conflicts with Twitter have brought section 230 to the forefront. Twitter’s gentle moderation of a few of Trump’s tweets backfired, as his administration now targets the company. Trump wants to repeal section 230, ensuring that moderation can lead to lawsuits. His goal is to remove bias from social media.

Section 230 has been a Republican target for some time. Last year, Senator Josh Hawley introduced legislation to end legal protections unless tech companies agreed to oversight. Legal protection would only extend to tech companies that complied with political bias audits. The logic is that if tech companies are going to moderate users, they’re publishers, not distributors.

Democrats Want Section 230 Reform to Stop Fake News

After the surprising 2016 election, many Americans feel that social media helped spread fake news. Many believe that this misinformation assisted Donald Trump’s election.

There are myriad reasons why Trump won in 2016; however, misinformation may have given him an edge. Although the elaborate Russian conspiracy theory never panned out, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter admitted that fake news is a problem. They agreed to do something about it, hiring more moderators and developing intelligent algorithms to sniff out falsehoods.

Many Democrats feel that Silicon Valley hasn’t done enough to cull the flow of digital misinformation. As these companies move more into the moderation business, they bear a stronger resemblance to publishers. With moderation and advertisements in social media feeds, it’s challenging to distinguish Twitter from a traditional publisher.

Repealing Section 230 Could Devastate Tech Industry

The tech industry was born out of section 230. It’s protections paved the way for Google, Twitter, Facebook, and so many others to thrive. These companies created jobs, both directly and indirectly, by creating entirely new careers and opportunities. Bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, influencers, and so many new, 21st century jobs exist because of section 230’s legal protection.

Section 230 reform must proceed with care. Opening up tech corporations to multitudes of lawsuits will increase operating costs. They may have to walk a tight-rope where both moderation and the lack thereof can generate litigation.

The irony in all of this is that our political leaders can’t get enough of social media. Trump still tweets, relentlessly, regardless of their moderation. Virtually every politician relies on social media for publicity. Would they enact legislation that could destroy the industry?

Rest assured, even if section 230 reform ends up destroying established social media corporations, new ones will pop up like mushrooms after the rain. The problem with existing social media platforms is that they are publishers, to the core. If they can’t survive or adapt to legislative change, new, more decentralized social media will evolve to fill the vacuum. Zuckerberg and Dorsey have made enough money, after all. Perhaps its time for change.

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