The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter are set to testify before the Senate Commerce committee Wednesday at a hearing expected to focus on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is competing with HIPAA for the most misunderstood law of 2020, and has faced a flurry of proposals ranging from silly and misguided to deeply dangerous and disingenuous.
Notably, several news outlets are reporting that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg intends to express openness to reforming or "updating" Section 230. This comes as no surprise, after all Facebook was the first Big Tech company to throw free expression and human rights under the bus in the interest of political expediency when they quietly endorsed SESTA/FOSTA, the disastrous legislation resulting from the last time Congress meddled with Section 230. Experts say the bill harmed the very communities it claimed to protect.
Digital rights group Fight for the Future, which has been leading the grassroots opposition to attacks on Section 230 issued the following statement, which can be attributed to Deputy Director, Evan Greer (she/her):
Blowing up Section 230 would be devastating for human rights and freedom of expression globally. And it will make Big Tech monopolies like Facebook and Google even more powerful in the process. Poking holes in this law would open the floodgates for widespread Internet censorship, and make it harder for websites to set community standards in the public interest.
It’s no surprise that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has decided to throw the rest of the Internet under the bus in calling for an "update" to Section 230. Messing with this law will only solidify the monopoly power of the largest tech companies, who have armies of lawyers and lobbyists to ensure that any changes are friendly to their business model, while crushing their competition from smaller companies and community-driven platforms like Wikipedia.
Zuckerberg’s move comes straight out of the same playbook that Big Tech and Big Telecom companies have employed again and again from net neutrality to facial recognition. He’s calling for regulation because he knows his company will have tremendous power to influence it.
While Section 230 is often incorrectly portrayed as a ‘gift’ or ‘prized liability shield’ for Big Tech, in fact it is a foundational law that has allowed the best parts of the Internet to flourish by enabling websites and apps to host user generated content like videos, photos, memes, music, reviews, comments, and opinions. Section 230 is also the law that makes it so you can’t get sued for retweeting something someone else says. At its core it’s a protection for free expression and the rights of Internet users, not big corporations.
Section 230 is essential for protecting speech that challenges power and authority. Web platforms would never have hosted the viral videos of police abuse that spurred on global uprisings for racial justice this year if they could have faced lawsuits for doing so. Nearly every social movement that challenges the status quo would be quickly silenced online in a world without Section 230.
Democrats and Republicans have turned Section 230 into a partisan football to kick back and forth as they each attempt to ‘work the refs’ ahead of election day. In doing so they’re putting our most basic rights in danger. Gutting Section 230 won’t do anything to address the real harms caused by Big Tech companies’ surveillance capitalist business models. For progressives raising legitimate concerns about hate speech and disinformation, it will make it even less likely that tech companies moderate content responsibly.
For conservatives alleging political bias on the part of the tech companies, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. If web platforms become liable for the content their users post, right wing accounts like President Trump and Ted Cruz would likely be among the first to be banned.
Proposals to tinker with Section 230 are a distraction and should be opposed. We need lawmakers to take meaningful action to reign in the growing power of Big Tech companies, like breaking up monopolies, mandating data portability and interoperability, and enacting strong Federal data privacy legislation that makes surveillance capitalist business models illegal.
From SOPA/PIPA to SESTA/FOSTA we’ve seen again and again just how dangerous it is when politicians turn complex tech policy issues into talking points for their election campaigns. It’s time for Internet users from across the political spectrum to rise up once again and reject the terrible idea of killing off the 26 words that created the Internet."