The Hindu Explains | Why are Democrats and Republicans opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act?


The story so far: In the U.S., Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) regulates online publication and liability. Specifically, the 1996 law 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.” Author and cybersecurity lawyer Jeff Kosseff describes the law as ‘the 26 words that created the Internet’. But the legislation has come in the crosshairs of both Republicans and Democrats. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for it to be repealed, including days ago, when he was suspended — first temporarily and then indefinitely — by social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook. President-elect Joe Biden has also called for the law’s repeal.

Why was the law passed?

The law grants Internet platforms immunity for almost all content posted on them — it is because of Section 230 of the CDA that Twitter is not normally liable for the content of tweets posted by its users, and Google is protected when a restaurant tries to sue it for a bad user review, for instance.

Also read | ‘Who the hell elected you?’: U.S. Senate tech hearing becomes election showdown

The law was passed in the aftermath of two court cases against Internet service providers, and different courts had ruled differently on the extent of liability for content hosting, and the extent of this liability itself.

Where do Republicans and Democrats stand on the law?

Republicans oppose Section 230 because for long, they have accused social media giants of silencing or stifling conservative voices. Democrats oppose it because they want greater policing of the Internet to tackle extremism, abuse and misinformation.

Mr. Biden called for Section 230 to be revoked in a 2019 interview to The New York Times. “[The NYT] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he [Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg] can,” he had said.

Also read | Several U.S. tech firms launch coalition to promote key Internet law

In 2019, Mr. Trump claimed that big tech was planning to rig the 2020 elections. In May 2020, he signed an executive order asking the Federal Communications Commission to propose regulations on the applicability of the law and review federal advertising spend on online platforms. After he lost the election, Mr. Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act (Congress passed it overriding the veto). Among the stated reasons for the veto was a lack of “meaningful” changes to Section 230.

How has the industry reacted to the opposition?

In general, the tech industry has said any changes to the law must consider the impact on First Amendment rights (free speech), business and innovation.

In June 2019, the Internet Association, whose members include Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., came out in support of Section 230. Referring to reviews posted online, its head said, “Repealing or weakening CDA 230 would take away the parts of the internet that help Americans feel safe and make better decisions about where they eat, shop, and travel.”

Repealing the law would lead to increased censoring of online content, Mr. Zuckerberg told a Senate committee (led by Republican lawmakers) in October 2020, to which he was subpoenaed along with Twitter head Jack Dorsey and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. The hearing was titled, “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”

Mr. Zuckerberg, however, said he supported the need to update the law but did not provide details of which reforms he backed, as per a Financial Times report on the hearing. Mr. Pichai had said any changes should be thoughtfully considered bearing in mind the impact on consumers and business.

“Eroding the foundation of Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the Internet,” said Mr. Dorsey, adding that it would mean only well-funded tech giants would survive.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, Mr. Zuckerberg had said that the level of regulation for social media companies should fall somewhere between regulation levels for telecom companies and newspapers.

Also read | Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls for regulating harmful online content

What lies ahead?

Following the attack on the Capitol on January 6, Facebook suspended Mr. Trump’s account indefinitely. Twitter also did the same, on grounds of ‘risk of further incitement of violence’. It also suspended more than 70,000 accounts related to QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy theory group.

Throughout the election, Twitter had labelled as ‘misleading’ numerous tweets in which Mr. Trump called the election fraudulent. With Mr. Biden stepping into the White House, Congress turning Democrat by a slim margin, and with a bitter election just fought, debates around Section 230 are likely to continue. The law may be modified, but it is not clear how.

This story is available exclusively to The Hindu subscribers only.

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