Should the internet’s most controversial law be repealed?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump on Wednesday vetoed a massive $741 billion military spending bill that had passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. One of the primary reasons Trump rejected the bill was that it did not include a repeal of an internet free-speech law known as Section 230, a once-arcane piece of communications legislation that has become a flashpoint for controversy in recent years.

Passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, Section 230 protects online entities like social media platforms and other websites from liability for the things their users post and gives them the freedom to moderate content as they see fit. Section 230 has been credited by many experts with creating space for the internet as we know it to grow.

The law has come under intense scrutiny from Republican lawmakers, who believe it fuels anti-conservative bias on social media. Despite a lack of evidence showing any kind of widespread suppression of conservative voices, criticism of Big Tech’s moderation policies has intensified recently as companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken more aggressive steps to counter disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and election from Trump and other high-profile conservatives. Trump has lashed out as his false tweets frequently carry warning labels like “This claim about election fraud is disputed.”

Repealing or amending Section 230 isn’t exclusively a Republican preoccupation. Many Democrats — including President-elect Joe Biden — have also called for changes to the law because they believe it creates room for disinformation and hate speech to run rampant online.

Why there’s debate

Though their reasoning differs significantly, Republicans and Democrats who support repealing Section 230 generally agree that the law creates far too much space for social media companies to impose opaque moderation policies that are harmful to the public’s understanding of the world. The provision’s critics say eliminating liability protections would force the major tech companies that hold a virtual monopoly on information to be accountable for the content they promote to their millions of users.

Defenders of Section 230 say the law continues to be the best way of ensuring that the internet is open and available to everyone. If it were repealed, operators of online forums could be forced to choose between two bad responses: drastically ramping up censorship to protect themselves from lawsuits or abandoning moderation altogether, allowing their sites to become overwhelmed by hate speech and pornography. Some argue that criticism of Section 230 is often grounded in a misunderstanding of how the law actually works, political grandstanding or both.

For these reasons, many argue that Section 230 should be reformed, rather than repealed. Simple changes that force social media companies to be more transparent about their moderation policies and hold them accountable if they don’t do enough to tamp down the most severe behavior on their sites could improve the online experience for everyone without destroying the many benefits of the law, supporters say.

What’s next

While Trump’s effort to repeal Section 230 does have some backing among the GOP, there still appear to be strong enough majorities in both houses of Congress to override his defense bill veto early next week.

Perspectives

Repeal it

Section 230 gives too much power to Big Tech

“All Americans should be alarmed that these giant firms are acting as judge and jury on enormously important issues, like our health or our elections. They must not be allowed to control our information, nor our country. Today, they are doing both.” — Liz Peek, The Hill

A heated political environment makes substantive discussion on the issue impossible

“Maybe it does need to be repealed. But first there needs to be a calm conversation about what would happen if it is. The last thing anyone but trial lawyers want is to open the door for a flood of content-related litigation or government speech control.” — Christian Trejbal, Seattle Times

The law was never intended to grant tech firms wholesale immunity

“What was originally understood to be a privilege granted for reasonable content moderation has become judicially contorted, stretched into a bulletproof immunity that protects these companies from all manner of misdeeds.” — Rachel Bovard, USA Today

Reform it

There’s a lot of room for a middle ground between repeal and doing nothing

“What is necessary is not a simple ‘repeal’ of Section 230, but an approach that recognizes that (1) social media platforms are not publishers in the ordinary sense and (2) social media platforms should no longer have anything close to blanket immunity for what appears on their platforms.” — Cass R. Sunstein, Bloomberg

Protections provided by the law must be made narrower

“Although monitoring the content posted by users is important, the federal government must guarantee that it is not shielding those who shield the public from each other's thoughts and ideas.” — Will Chamberlain, Newsweek

The incentives that Section 230 creates need to be addressed

“While Section 230 was intended to limit the platforms’ responsibility for bad content, the courts have also perversely interpreted it as providing protection for commercial decisions to elevate and push stories to users. This allows Google and Facebook to focus on user engagement to the exclusion of everything else, including content quality and user well-being.” — David Chavern, Wired

Keep it

The internet can’t thrive without Section 230

“It’s no understatement to say that without those protections, we wouldn’t have the robust online public forums that we all enjoy, loathe or avoid. Section 230 created a safe zone in which social media flourished.” — Christian Trejbal, Seattle Times

Repealing Section 230 would lead to more censorship, not less

“By legally insulating online businesses, Section 230 has encouraged innovation and growth. Without the law, new internet companies would have more difficulty getting aloft, while established platforms would block many more posts in response to heightened litigation risks. Pointed political debate might get removed, and free expression would be constricted.” — Paul M. Barrett, MIT Technology Review

Repealing Section 230 would make social media behemoths even more powerful

“Google, Facebook and Twitter are likely to survive any change to Section 230 that Congress passes. … Future legislation to erode Section 230 might do nothing more than further harden Facebook and Google from meaningful competition.” — Elliot Harmon, New York Times

GOP complaints about Section 230 are pure political theater

“Let’s say the quiet part out loud for once: Republican lawmakers don’t really care about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. They also don’t believe social media platforms are intentionally limiting conservative voices. It’s all a ruse. A game.” — Jared Schroeder, The Hill

Section 230 isn’t the real issue

“Whether the tech platforms are making fair, unbiased moderation decisions about what content reaches millions of people is the wrong question to ask. Instead, Congress and the American people should ask why we are allowing Big Tech that power in the first place. We must drastically deconcentrate control over speech so that any single company’s bias or business model cannot have a sizable impact on public discourse.” — Sally Hubbard, CNN

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images