Policy Summary: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In the last few months, there has been a movement in Congress to reconsider Section 230 and to maybe roll back the protections that Section 230 provides. In June 2019 Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” which would modify Section 230 significantly. The bill would remove automatic Section 230 immunity for big tech companies. Additionally, the bill would condition immunity for big tech companies if they can prove through “external audits” that their third party moderation practices are “politically neutral.” And on October 16, 2019, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing that featured testimony from Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Legal Director Corynne McSherry defending Section 230. And just this past month, Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi backed a move to omit Section 230 protections from a number of potential global trade deals. Speaker Pelosi’s office noted that Congress was still debating the future of the law as one reason why it was not included in upcoming trade deals. LEARN MORE
Analysis: While Section 230 has always been controversial since its passage in 1996 the recent genesis for the debate in Congress over the section lies in Congressional frustration with Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms in developing a workable policy that addresses hate speech, political speech and other speech concerns. The inability to make progress in that arena has prompted Members of Congress to turn to Section 230 and maybe make some changes to that law to encourage online platforms to rein in companies to motivate them to deal with the speech concerns that have plagued many of those platforms and websites.
But is removing the immunity from those potential lawsuits the best way to approach hate speech and online bullying that can be found on those platforms? While those concerns need to be addressed on a daily basis and no workable solution has yet been drafted, it is telling that two of the most well known civil rights groups in the country have come out in defense of Section 230 as written and have taken the position to oppose changes to the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a blog post that praised Section 230 and listed instances where the law has helped to foster technological innovation and free speech while even acknowledging that mistakes can happen here and there. But the overall point made by the ACLU is that Section 230 is positive. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has issued one – page information sheets that explains why Section 230 is important, not broken and a benefit to society. The info sheets is similar to the points made by the ACLU and is significant because it comes from EFF – a well – respected non – profit group whose mission is to defend civil liberties in the digital world.
The other side of the argument in Congress has made waves for what it is suggesting but the option, specifically from Senator Hawley in Missouri, is seen as nothing but a last resort for Congress’ failure to push online platforms to workable speech policies. Senator Hawley’s “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” is disturbing on a number of levels. His bill would give the federal government a role in determining what speech is appropriate on websites which can easily lead to censorship of topics that the government does not favor. And the term “politically neutral” is a term that is so vague that it can only cause confusion in trying to have it implemented in a fair and objective manner. This bill from Senator Hawley would destroy any benefits that Section 230 has brought over the last twenty – three years.
While the debate in Congress continues over the future of Section 230, it is becoming clear that Section 230 has had a positive effect. While it can of course be improved as any law can, the positions taken by the ACLU and EFF touting its benefits should be taken seriously lest the U.S. make a rash and uninformed decision to modify Section 230, especially in a way that Senator Hawley’s bill proposes to go. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- Lawfare – legal website’s essay on the history, development and motivations for enacting Section 230.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – non – profit group webpage on Section 230.
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – non – profit group webpage on Section 230.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.
Photo by Quino Al