What is Section 230?

President Donald Trump arrives to make a statement to reporters on the reopening of churches in the Brady Press Room at the White House in Washington, May 22, 2020.

Leah Millis | Reuters

President Donald Trump is the last politician to tackle a law that has long protected the tech industry.

The White House is expected to unveil a new executive decree on Thursday that would direct federal agencies to exercise greater oversight and regulations related to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, according to a preliminary draft of the decree obtained by CNBC.

The move would give further scrutiny to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, which the Conservatives have repeatedly accused of political bias in their content removal processes. Companies have denied allegations of censorship and developed lengthy policies to explain the factors they take into account when moderating content.

While Democrats have largely avoided allegations of censorship from tech companies, Section 230 has become a rare unification point for political leaders of both parties who say the industry has become too powerful and has overtaken the need for his protections. In an interview with The New York Times Editorial Board released earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Hope Joe Biden said section 230 “should immediately be revoked” for tech platforms including Facebook, which he says “spreads lies they know to be false”.

Yet politicians disagree on how it should be updated, especially since the law allows tech companies to engage in good faith moderation of content, such as deleting messages on terrorism and the exploitation of children.

For critics of the technology industry, article 230 symbolizes the exceptional treatment of the government which has fueled the growth of a small number of players.

For technology companies, the law represents the founding values ​​of the openness and freedom of expression of the Internet, while allowing them to remove the most insidious speech without falling into a legal minefield.

Here are the main things to know about this bill:

What is section 230 and why was it passed?

Section 230 was introduced by Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., And former representative Chris Cox, R-Calif., To protect tech companies from legal liability for the content of their users if they chose to moderate it.

The law followed a court decision against the online platform Prodigy.

An investment company sued Prodigy after an anonymous user of the platform accused him of fraud. Prodigy argued that it was not responsible for the speech of its users, but the court found that, as the platform moderated some of the messages from its users, it should be treated more like an editor, which can be held legally responsible for the misleading or harmful content it publishes.

The decision prompted Cox and Wyden to introduce what would become article 230. The law allows companies to engage in “good Samaritan” moderation of “objectionable” material without being treated as a publisher or speaker in under the law.

This is what allows platforms like Google’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to delete terrorist content or harass messages while enjoying other legal protections. It was also essential that these companies reach a massive scale – if they were responsible for everything that users posted, they would either have to check each piece of content before it went live, which would significantly increase spending and create delays, or forgo any moderation, which would make the user experience worse.

Why do some people want to change the law?

In recent years, Washington has started souring the tech industry after a series of complaints about the privacy and growing power of a few key players. As politicians and the general public became aware of the vast power of large technology companies, they began to see section 230 as a key contributor to this power.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have publicly questioned the broad scope of section 230. Once a means of protecting innovative tech companies, the law now provides a legal shield for some of the most valuable companies in the world. Some fear that tech companies may not be encouraged to tackle disinformation on their platforms as a technology that facilitates the falsification of videos and voices becomes more advanced.

Some conservatives believe that section 230 has helped tech companies to censor speeches with which they disagree. There is little evidence that traditional tech companies systematically discriminate against certain ideologies, but they do have them at times deleted political messages, sometimes by mistake, to apologize and reinstate them later.

Such allegations of bias inspired the revision by Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley of section 230, which would link the promise of statutory immunity to a regular audit proving that the algorithms and practices for deleting content technology companies are “politically neutral”.

What do advocates say?

Tech companies have vigorously defended section 230, repeatedly testifying to Congress on how it allows them to remove the most objectionable content from their platforms and protects start-ups from legal action.

Wyden still stands by section 230, writing in a Washington Post, editorial On Monday, efforts to repeal it would punish small start-ups rather than giants like Facebook and Google.

Wyden said that corporations lobbying for changes to section 230 do it to find “an advantage against big tech companies”.

“Whenever laws are passed to put government under speech control, injured people are the least powerful in society,” Wyden wrote, referring to SESTA-FOSTA, a 2018 law that made an exception to Article 230 for platforms hosting sex work. ads. Law has been touted as a way to curb sex trafficking, but opponents, including many sex workers, say so made consensual sex work less safe because those who sign up can no longer control their customers in advance and behind a screen.

How could the law change?

Congress held several hearings on section 230 and sought the advice of academics and technical officials. Lawmakers on both sides have chastised pressure from the Trump administration to include a similar provision in U.S. trade deals as Congress continues to debate the future of section 230.

Most critics of section 230 recognize the importance of maintaining some of its key elements, such as protections from moderation. Former Vice President Joe Biden has proven to be a notable exception.

Although few others seem to favor a total repeal, legislators have expressed an interest in reducing some of the powers of section 230 or ensuring that platforms gain its protections by complying with certain standards.

“The 230, I know there are some who said to get rid of it,” Jan Schakowsky representative D-Ill told CNBC. Shakowsky recently held a hearing on counterfeiting and digital deception in the consumer protection subcommittee, which she chairs.

“Our opinion is that we want to protect the rights of the First Amendment, there is no doubt about it. But for the moment, we think that the balance favors those who want a shield of responsibility, and [it] goes much too far in this direction. “

We still don’t know what specific measures legislators can take to amend section 230, but they have often used it to remind tech companies that its protections may not last forever.

At the deepfakes hearing, representative Greg Walden, R-Ore., Who advised Congress to review section 230, said: “This hearing should serve as a reminder to all online platforms that we monitor them from close.”

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