There’s been increased controversy surrounding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) – the law which prevents internet service providers like Facebook, Twitter and Google from being held liable for content their users post. So why are lawmakers, activists and lay people alike at odds over Section 230? Here are 5 things Black America needs to know about Section 230 protections for social media companies.
Section 230 of the CDA was passed in 1996 and was intended to protect freedom of speech for internet users in the United States.
The key provision of law which is currently at the center of controversy states: “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.” The provision is also known as “the 26 words that created the internet.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) dubbed Section 230 “one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet.” There are, however, exceptions to the law for federal crimes and intellectual property cases.
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Due to 230, not only are social media companies, and other internet providers, legally protected from prosecution for their users’ speech, they are also allowed to craft their own content moderation standards and policies.
This means, the companies are able to censor speech at will. The latest and most high profile example of this has been Twitter, Facebook, Google and others companies banning President Donald Trump from using their sites after he incited riots on the U.S. Capitol with inflammatory rhetoric and speech, including telling them to. “fight like hell.”
However, Black users of social media have often complained of their content being heavily removed and censored when they address things like white supremacy and racism.
There has long been concern about the power social media companies increasingly wield. However, it came to a head on America’s political stage in Dec. 2020.
President Donald Trump called for the law’s elimination and vetoed a defense bill over Congress’ failure to repeal it. He and many Republicans believe big tech social media companies discriminately censor conservative speech, while letting liberal views abound on their platforms. Trump has repeatedly called for stricter regulations.
In a now-deleted tweet (since Trump has been permanently banned form Twitter), Trump expressed his frustration with social media companies carte blanche power.
“Twitter is doing nothing about all of the lies & propaganda being put out by China or the Radical Left Democrat Party,” Trump wrote. “They have targeted Republicans, Conservatives & the President of the United States. Section 230 should be revoked by Congress. Until then, it will be regulated!”
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Democrats have also called for reform to Section 230. While Trump and President-elect Joe Biden agree on very little, Biden has also called for Section 230 to be revoked.
“I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. [The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can,” Biden said, referring to Mark Zuckerberg according to Independent.
Both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about regulation of their platforms. While they are open to reforming the bill, they said they still need some of the protections it provides.
“I believe that we can build upon Section 230,” Dorsey said, while cautioning lawmakers not to go too far with reforms according to CNET. “I think we can make sure that we’re earning people’s trust by encouraging more transparency around content moderation. … What we’re most concerned with is making sure that we continue to enable new companies to contribute to the internet and to contribute to conversation.”
Zuckerberg added that he believes his company and others like it “have responsibilities, and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform.”
However, like Dorsey, he advocated for some protections to remain. “I think it [social media] deserves and needs its own regulatory framework,” Zuckerberg said.
Section 230 protections extend beyond social media companies to other Internet Service Providers like bloggers who have sections for user comments and more.
Independent reports: “For technology companies, frustration comes from uncertainty about what Section 230 changes could look like – changes that could damage parts of the internet that have both become ubiquitous, but are notably smaller than the giants of Facebook and YouTube which are oft-cited regarding these debates.”