Since he took office in November 2020, President Joe Biden has repeatedly pushed for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, one of the most fundamental regulations governing the internet. Last Thursday, during a “listening session” on tech platform accountability, he made his latest plea for this. The Biden administration has called for the elimination of the liability shield enjoyed by social media platforms in the distribution of third-party content, among other “fundamental principles for change” released on Thursday.
The intent of the 1996 passage of Section 230 was to protect kids from exposure to pornographic content online. Website owners were unable to take on the issue because of the era’s legal framework; any attempt to control internet content increased their civil culpability. In order to help with this issue, Congress codified Section 230 into law, making it possible for tech corporations and regular website owners to remove illegal or otherwise objectionable content without fear of legal repercussions.
The Internet as we know it now would not be possible without the protections provided by Section 230. Particularly for any business, running a social media platform would be a huge risk. Suppose the Wikimedia Foundation was directly liable for the actions of the millions of unpaid Wikipedia contributors. The site would likely disappear altogether. (Thank Section 230 for the opportunity to have you comment on our posts here at Gizmodo.)
In the past five years, Section 230 has been a major point of contention for both Republicans and Democrats, but for different reasons in each party. Many legislators now believe that the shelter afforded by this legal clause is too strong for the firms that host a vast quantity of problematic content, ranging from health and political disinformation to pages and groups inciting actual violence.
Many authorities maintain that tinkering with the underlying law poses serious risks that could lead to severe restrictions on internet free expression. Just think about what may happen to the volume of content that is removed from YouTube if the corporation had more reason to worry about being inundated with lawsuits.
Although social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have already demonstrated some incompetence in separating potentially harmful content from innocuous posts, one can only speculate how much more commonplace unjustified account suspensions might become if companies like these were constantly threatened with financial loss.
Consequently, many digital rights organizations have sought non-legislative remedies to the problems of misinformation, racism, and violence on the major social media platforms, such as encouraging companies to create stronger filters and procedures internally. (It’s also important to note that these initiatives have generally resulted in negligible change.)
Biden’s consistent advocacy for Section 230 “reforms” stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric he employed to win the presidency. When writer Charlie Warzel pointed out that the rule was “foundational” to the contemporary internet, then-candidate Biden told the New York Times in January 2020 that it should be “revoked, immediately.” Biden reiterated, “That’s right.” That’s the way it should be said. And it ought to be canceled.”
With the help of his former press secretary, Jen Psaki, Vice President Joe Biden changed his viewpoint after being elected. He stopped using the word “revoke” and started using the word “reform.” Psaki told reporters in October 2021 that Biden favored “privacy and antitrust reforms as well as more transparency,” and she brought up the topic again in November 2021, this time in conjunction with criticisms of social media failures to crack down on misinformation pertaining to vaccines and elections.
On several other occasions since then, the White House has made vague references to Section 230. In particular, the emphasis placed this week on “big tech platforms” by officials in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue stands out.
In recent years, a number of bills have been introduced that do just that, adopting language meant to distinguish large corporations like Google and Facebook from smaller mom-and-pop websites by reserving enforcement only for those with annual revenues of $US500 ($694) million or more, or with more than a billion users worldwide, respectively.
Though, one could argue that Biden does not have the authority to make the call on whether or not Section 230 is changed. That’s a task for Congress, I guess. By putting the issue in the spotlight and pressuring lawmakers to act, Biden is doing his job.
That goal has been the subject of numerous proposed laws from both parties in both houses, but so far none of them have been put to a vote. Many of these bills have had extremely nebulous or unnecessarily inflammatory language; the internet might be forgiven for being thankful for this.