Friday, July 1

What you need to know about Big Tech’s Section 230 shield, the internet law that Trump hated and Biden might reform

  • Section 230 is a part of a US law that allows tech companies to moderate content on their services.
  • It also means they are not liable for illegal things that people say on the platforms.
  • Trump hated the law and wanted to revoke it, while Biden supports some sort of Section 230 reform.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Chatter about Section 230, the part of US law that shields tech companies from legal liability, isn’t going away anytime soon.

It has become a contentious point in US politics and remains so under President Joe Biden, who tossed out former President Donald Trump’s executive order, dubbed “preventing online censorship,” in May. The order would have enabled officials to hold Twitter, Facebook, and their peers responsible if they removed or flagged users’ posts.

Most recently, Trump said he was suing Facebook, Twitter, and Google, accusing them of “censoring” users, even though Section 230 grants them the ability to moderate their platforms

But that doesn’t mean Section 230 reform isn’t a bipartisan issue — Biden has also voiced his support for repealing and reforming the law.

All of which is to say, it’s worth having a rundown of Section 230. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, and its advocates have called it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It includes regulatory guidelines for “interactive computer services,” which now include modern-day social media companies like Twitter and Facebook.

The section, which has been described as “the 26 words that created the internet,” says: “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.”

This means that Twitter and Facebook can avoid being regulated as publishers and are protected from being held liable for illegal posts (with some exceptions). Whereas a newspaper would be held liable for the content it produces and publishes, social media companies can distance themselves from the content posted by people onto their platforms.

The section also gives social media sites the ability to regulate content, such as hate speech, on their platforms:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service… shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy , excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

This specific text allows social media sites to remove or add warning labels to users’ posts or even suspend people who violate their rules. It’s also why tech companies don’t violate the First Amendment when they regulate content as they see fit.

Twitter and Facebook have largely taken a hands-off approach to moderating content. Still, they have removed or flagged posts that explicitly violate their policies, such as policies against inciting violence. For example, Twitter’s rules ban hate speech but such speech is allowed generally by the First Amendment.

Why do lawmakers care about Section 230?

President Donald Trump first started calling for Section 230 to be revoked in May 2020 after Twitter flagged two of his tweets about mail-in voting with a warning that read “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”

Trump responded with an executive order targeting social-media companies’ protections under Section 230, which Biden revoked in May.

Trump’s now-revoked order had no effect on Section 230, but it raised the law’s public profile, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle started discussing its possible revocation, though for very different reasons.

Republicans want to amend or revoke Section 230 to fight alleged censorship of conservative users online, while Democrats largely saw it as a way to make companies liable for harmful content, like disinformation.

Following the Georgia runoffs in January the Democrats control both Houses, meaning they have a better shot at re-crafting Section 230 the way they want.

This poses a potential threat to Big Tech executives. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said while testifying before a Senate Judiciary hearing in October 2020 that revoking Section 230 would “collapse how we communicate on the Internet.”