We have been hearing President Trump threaten to revoke Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 since spring of this year. It started when Twitter fact checked one of his tweets, and most recently has come through as the President threatening to veto the defense spending bill unless Congress acts to repeal Section 230. The defense spending bill is yearly legislation that typically passes both houses with bi-partisan support and a veto-proof majority. With its prominence in the news lately, it might be good to take a look at what Section 230 is, and what would happen if it is revoked.
Section 230 is a provision in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that shields websites from legal liability for what their users post, but it leaves space to moderate that content for community standards. In a way, it treats the websites as distributors of content, not publishers of content. There are a few exceptions, such as hate speech, and sexually explicit content covered in the law, which are typically included in those moderation standards as well.
The word of many experts is that the internet as we know it today, especially social media, would not exist without Section 230. That legal protection is what makes us able to post our thoughts, opinions, jokes, memes, and news articles without heavy-handed editing and screening from the places we are trying to post them. If 230 was repealed, websites like Twitter, Facebook, would have to be heavy-handed in removing content that might be grounds for a lawsuit. Which means much greater censorship of everything.
The criticism of the provision does tend to come from both Democrats and Republicans, but for very different reasons. Democrats tend to say the provision has allowed for the rampant spread of disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence. The argument being that cutting or changing those legal protections would compel sites to do more to mitigate that issue.
Many Republican critics of the provision have been complaining that they are being censored by the moderation of those websites, usually claiming political bias. These complaints from Republicans have been happening for a while, and have never had substantial evidence, but the more recent concerns have escalated since sites have been adding warnings and fact-check information to the false information Tweeted by the President. Particularly regarding topics like mail-in voting, COVID-19, and election results.
While it might be worth looking at options to update the protections in Section 230, scrapping it entirely would be unreasonable and untenable. The rash of lawsuits towards any internet company would be massive, it would quell growth of new companies and platforms, and any that survived would very quickly begin to edit, censor, and remove content that could potentially bring litigation. It seems the actual effect would be the opposite of what Republicans say they want.
Ultimately, this seems to be a crusade from the President and his supporters without much real understanding of what would happen if they get what they are calling for. Or, it is an empty threat thrown out in retaliation with no intent of real action behind it, which is much more likely. But each of those options make it all the more important for all people, legislators or not, to understand what Section 230 is, what it has done for the internet, and what would happen if we actually repeal it. Then, consider if that is really what you want to see happen.
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