Understanding the Controversy over Section 230

section 230

Most people probably hadn’t even heard of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act until recently. It’s been in the news because, as The Verge reported, in December President Donald Trump

vetoed an annual defense bill authorizing billions of dollars in military spending after complaints that the bill did not include changes to Section 230, the provision that gives social media companies legal immunity over much of the content posted by their users.

Section 230, which became law in 1996, states that “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.”

Those “other” information content providers can be individuals or businesses that post on social media, or post comments on news stories, or in any other way post on sites that don’t belong to them.

Section 230 protects websites and other internet service providers from lawsuits for things like defamation. However, it does have exceptions for certain kinds of criminal activity (such as prostitution) and claims based on intellectual property infringement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) calls Section 230 “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet,” and notes

This legal and policy framework has allowed for YouTube and Vimeo users to upload their own videos, Amazon and Yelp to offer countless user reviews, craigslist to host classified ads, and Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking to hundreds of millions of Internet users. Given the sheer size of user-generated websites (for example, Facebook alone has more than 1 billion users, and YouTube users upload 100 hours of video every minute), it would be infeasible for online intermediaries to prevent objectionable content from cropping up on their site. Rather than face potential liability for their users' actions, most would likely not host any user content at all or would need to protect themselves by being actively engaged in censoring what we say, what we see, and what we do online. In short, CDA 230 is perhaps the most influential law to protect the kind of innovation that has allowed the Internet to thrive since 1996.

So why did President Trump want the law changed so badly that he tried to hold up a military spending bill?

In May, the President signed an executive order asking the National Telecommunication and Information Administration to reinterpret what Section 230 means. He did this after Twitter, his favorite social media platform, fact-checked two of his tweets which made false and misleading claims about mail-in voting and voter fraud, as The Verge reported.

Trump called Section 230 “a security risk” and sought to “terminate” it.

As TechCrunch noted, it’s not clear what Trump meant by a “security risk,” but he claimed that Section 230 “facilitates the spread of foreign disinformation online.”

As USA Today reported, the Senate overrode Trump’s veto – the first congressional override during his presidency.

As the CBC reported, Twitter and Facebook both froze Trump’s accounts and eventually banned him after his armed supporters stormed the Capitol and five people died.

President-elect Joe Biden said in a New York Times interview last January that he also wanted to revoke Section 230 because internet companies like Facebook were irresponsibly propagating falsehoods.

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