Trump vs. Big Tech: Everything you need to know about Section 230 and why everyone hates it

Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY

What is Section 230?

The Communications Decency Act is an obscure law passed by Congress in 1996 that has profoundly shaped today’s internet.

It's a provision of that law that's so hotly contested. Section 230 was intended to protect free expression on the internet by shielding internet companies from liability for much of the content their users post on their platforms, and granting companies legal immunity for good faith efforts to remove content.

That provision helped fuel the rise of the modern internet. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube say they could not exist in their current form without its protections.

There are exceptions to the law, such as federal crimes and intellectual property claims. Also, lawmakers in 2018 chipped away at Section 230 protections by passing a law that makes it easier to sue internet platforms that knowingly aid sex trafficking.

But generally speaking, internet companies have broad latitude to decide what can stay on their platforms and what must come down.

Why does Trump hate Section 230?

Section 230 has critics on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans generally agree that social media platforms should be held more accountable for how they police content, and the parties have introduced a number of bills, none of which has gained traction on Capitol Hill.

Democrats including presidential nominee Joe Biden have urged Congress to revise Section 230 to make tech companies more accountable for hate speech and extremism, election interference, misinformation and disinformation.

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Republican critics accuse tech companies of censoring conservatives and limiting their reach on social media. There is no clear evidence to support those claims, which tech companies deny.

President Donald Trump and his surrogates have been the loudest critics of Section 230. Trump has repeatedly called on Congress to repeal it. The Justice Department has asked Congress to adopt a new law that would hold Facebook, Google and Twitter legally accountable for how they moderate content.

Trump’s attacks on Section 230 have intensified in the final weeks of his re-election campaign as social media companies label or remove posts they deem false or misleading or that could cause harm or incite violence.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump both want to rewrite Section 230 but for different reasons.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump both want to rewrite Section 230 but for different reasons.

What does this have to do with Hunter Biden?

Charges of anti-conservative bias raged again this week when Facebook and Twitter limited access to a dubious article about Biden and his son Hunter.

Facebook said it slowed the spread of the article to fact-check its claims. Twitter said it blocked the article because it included people’s personal information and relied on hacked materials, both violations of its policies. The Senate Judiciary Committee said it plans to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify about his company’s handling of the matter.

With the presidential election just weeks away, social media companies are moving aggressively to remove misinformation that could sway voters or tilt the election.

“(Biden) and his family are crooked, and they got caught. And now they are being protected by Big Tech,” Trump said Thursday. “We must immediately strip them of their Section 230 protection."

What’s the latest? Clarence Thomas, FCC

On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said he plans to craft new rules to limit Section 230's scope.

The Commerce Department asked the FCC to look into “ambiguities” in Section 230 after Trump issued an executive order in May. That executive order came after Twitter put fact-check labels on his tweets for the first time.

The FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Geoffrey Starks and Jessica Rosenworcel, challenged Pai’s decision. The Internet Association, an industry group, also criticized Pai.

"The First Amendment protects every private enterprise’s ability to set and enforce rules for acceptable content on their services," deputy general counsel Elizabeth Banker said in a statement.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said this month that lower courts have interpreted Section 230 too broadly, giving internet companies “sweeping protections” that were not intended by the statute.

What's next for Section 230?

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Sundar Pichai and Twitter's Jack Dorsey are scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee later this month.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Section 230 under attack: Why Trump and Democrats want to rewrite it