Section 230 in the Age of Technology
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Editor’s note: this piece was written before the 2020 presidential election took place. Even at time of editing, the final result of that election is still uncertain.
How many times have you seen something on the Internet that you wish you hadn’t? Whether it be a cruel comment, racist imagery, or something physically disgusting, it is incredibly and unfortunately easy to find all sorts of repulsive content out there. But who should take responsibility for such posts? Should it be the users who post them or the websites that host them?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is a part of the United States’s internet legislation, protecting websites from lawsuits when users make illegal posts. The idea behind the law is that, in the United States, citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech. If websites like Facebook and Twitter were required to take responsibility for their users’ posts and words, that liability would inevitably mean more censorship would occur as companies removed hateful messages and illegal images.
Unfortunately for Section 230’s proponents, though, both major presidential candidates seem to support its repeal.
The Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, believes that Section 230’s allowing information to spread unrestricted increases the amount of misinformation in the world. Therefore, he argues that repealing the law is necessary to increase the overall education of the American public.
His opponent, President Donald Trump, agrees. The President tweeted on October 28: “So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!” His vendetta against Section 230 seems to stem from Twitter’s frequent fact-checks and censorship of his posts, which he views as a method of generating fake news.
So now we have the two major arguments against Section 230. But is either situation as dramatic as politicians would like us to believe?
Biden’s belief in the spread of misinformation incorrectly conflates our freedom of speech and Section 230. Section 230 only eliminates the responsibility that companies have for illegal content, not all posts in general. Misinformation is just as likely to spread, even without Section 230.
Alongside President Trump, certain Republicans claim that Section 230 allows companies to unnecessarily censor and sideline right-wing voices. Yet reports have proven the opposite; if anything, it’s progressive voices that are quieted. Furthermore, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that Section 230 allows for greater freedom of speech, since companies don’t have to be worried about legal action based on what their users are saying.
In fact, tech companies claim they would be incentivized to censor more posts in order not to be held responsible for illegal activity. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has announced that his company will have no choice but to increase censorship on even minor offenses should Section 230 be repealed. Furthermore, it’ll be increasingly difficult for companies to monitor the millions of posts made each day: either they’ll be forced to create an excess of restrictions, or they’ll leave themselves open to dozens of potential lawsuits.
The Trump administration has already made several attempts for reform. An amendment was made in April 2018 that made criminal charges of sex trafficking fall outside of the domain of Section 230. That change means that websites must take responsibility for crimes related to sex trafficking that occur on their platform. Specifically, however, this amendment is aimed at websites that have been used as hubs for illegal sexual encounters. It has little effect on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Regardless of the impacts of this amendment, it is clearly a step in the right direction. After all, the goal of policymakers is to change Section 230 in order to protect the people. Future changes can aid in preventing illegal sales and activity from occurring on public platforms all across the Internet. There’s no need to remove it altogether, forcing unfortunate users to take the brunt of the decision when social media companies increase moderation.
For now, it seems that amendments to this controversial bit of legislature may be the best case scenario. The truth is, Section 230 is an outdated law, considering how it was passed in 1996, far before anyone knew how dominant the Internet would be in daily life. Yet for the sake of the Internet’s millions of users, it shouldn’t be repealed completely.