If Section 230 is repealed, the internet would change forever

If Section 230 is repealed, the internet would change forever
Source: Thomas White, Reuters
The Trump administration has gone to significant lengths in its attempt to secure Section 230’s repeal, in a campaign fueled by misinformation as to Section 230’s real purpose and impact on “free speech” online.

As lawmakers in the United States recently finalized a second coronavirus relief package, President Donald Trump arrived at the end of negotiations to demand that stimulus check payments be increased to US$2,000 and “Section 230” be repealed.

President Trump has long obsessed over Section 230, which is a piece of legislation that protects any “interactive computer service” – such as a social media website, or any website that is open for users to make “posts” or “comments” – from being held liable for what users choose to post.

But Trump’s efforts to see Section 230 overturned have broken new ground in recent weeks. In December, President Trump tried to secure a repeal of Section 230 in return for the authorization of the annual National Defense Authorization Act and US$2,000 stimulus checks.

The Trump administration has gone to significant lengths in its attempt to secure Section 230’s repeal, in a campaign fueled by misinformation as to Section 230’s real purpose and impact on “free speech” online.

But the efforts to tie a repeal of Section 230 with an increase in the amount provided by stimulus checks may have had disastrous consequences for Republicans when the measure failed to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In the Senate runoff election in Georgia on January 5, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, in the process giving Democrats the majority they need to seize control of the Senate.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 refers to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

The Section 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.”

Essentially, Section 230 provides a liability shield not just for social media websites, but for any website in which users can post, comment or otherwise contribute content of their own.

As per Section 230, an “interactive computer service,” such as a social media website, cannot be treated as the “speaker” of third-party content produced by that website’s users.

This essentially guarantees to websites that they can allow discussion and comments to take place on their platforms without being held liable for any potentially illegal content.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, Section 230 is consequently “the most important law protecting internet speech,” as without it, “interactive computer services” would be significantly more restrictive as to who can comment on what.

As the authors of Section 230 – Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and former California Representative Chris Cox – have argued, “the law provides the legal certainty and protection from open-ended liability that permits websites large and small to host the free expression of individuals.”

Stimulus ties

This view of Section 230 is not shared by President Trump and many of his Republican allies, however.

In May, as a result of a rising dispute with the social media platform Twitter, President Trump signed an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship” that allegedly aimed to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”

Trump pinpointed “a small handful of powerful social media monopolies” that his order claimed are in control of “a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States” and have used this dominance to “censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”

The Executive Order also directed the Federal Communications Commission to review Section 230, highlighting this as central to the perceived free speech abuses carried out by social media.

But this reading of Section 230 is a fundamentally flawed one. As Parker Molloy of Media Matters for America writes, “Section 230 is what holds the person who posted the illegal content legally liable for what they posted rather than” social media companies.

If Trump had his way, “wholesale elimination of Section 230 would dramatically increase the amount of censorship on the internet,” forcing social media companies to moderate what their users say before it has been posted, lest they face liability for any illegal content that escapes premeditative moderation.

Despite this obfuscation of Section 230’s real purpose, the Trump administration has only heightened the intensity with which it is pursuing the legislation’s repeal.

In December, President Trump vetoed the US$740 billion National Defense Authorization Act, a piece of legislation that is passed annually to fund the military, on the grounds that it failed to include language “terminating” Section 230.

Following his veto, President Trump stated that “your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230 will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step.”

This effort was short-lived, however, as the president’s veto was overridden in both the House and Senate, with an 81-13 margin in the latter chamber.

But the Trump administration and a growing number of Republican allies have not stopped there.

In recent weeks, the repeal of Section 230 has come to be linked with an increase in the value of stimulus check payments made to US citizens.

Following his demand at the end of coronavirus relief negotiations that stimulus check payments be expanded to US$2,000, the Democrat-controlled House willingly obliged the president, voting to increase the payments from their agreed-upon value of US$600.

The House voted for an increase by a margin of 275 to 134, with 44 Republicans joining the Democrats in passing the bill.

Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have met calls for increased stimulus payments from both fellow lawmakers and their own constituents with hesitation.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that US$2,000 dollar checks were “socialism for rich people” who did not require help.

But McConnell himself has also tied an increase of stimulus check payments to a full repeal of Section 230, perhaps recognizing that Democrats are unlikely to trade one for the other. McConnell subsequently stated there was “no realistic path” for a quick vote on US$2,000 stimulus checks, even with bipartisan agreement between Democrats, Republicans and President Trump.

That the repeal of Section 230 has come to be tied to an increase in the value of stimulus check payments to Americans is but the latest in a growing list of attempts, largely led by President Trump, to strike back at social media companies by overturning the legislation that in large part guarantees free speech on these platforms.

The position of the Republican-led Senate on increased stimulus checks put Georgia Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in a difficult position during their campaign for Georgia’s two Senate runoff races. Both Perdue and Loeffler had endorsed an increase of stimulus check payments, breaking with Senate Majority Leader McConnell who had characterized the increase as “more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats’ rich friends who don’t need the help.”

President Trump himself has stated that “unless Republicans have a death wish” they “must approve the $2000 payments ASAP.”

It was a likely a combination of the Republican-controlled Senate’s failure to pass an increase to the US$600 stimulus payments and President Trump’s own fixation on what he had alleged to be a “rigged” November election that resulted in Loeffler and Perdue’s downfall and is just more evidence of the divisions within the Republican Party.

These divisions appear to be widening, both over Section 230 and appeasing President Trump’s anti-social media stance as well as over an increase of stimulus payments.

With Republicans having now lost control of the Senate, these divisions appear likely to grow once President Trump leaves office.

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