Tomorrow, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing entitled “Does Section 230 Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” This is just the latest attempt by Congress and the Trump administration to amend, reinterpret, or eliminate Section 230, a key provision of federal law that generally ensures online platforms, including social media, can’t be held liable for the speech and content their users post on these platforms. This law means Yelp can’t be held legally responsible every time one of its users posts a false negative review. The Bed Bug Registry doesn’t have to visit every hotel with a magnifying glass to confirm reports from the public. And Facebook can offer a forum for billions of users to share their thoughts, pictures, memes, and videos freely without having to approve every post before they go up.
Over the summer, Donald Trump issued an executive order calling for the Federal Communications Commission to commence a rulemaking to reinterpret Section 230 in ways entirely contrary to its purpose. Meanwhile, Congress has put forward numerous legislative proposals to amend 230. These efforts are confused at best. Many Republicans believe that the platforms at stake display an anti-conservative bias, disproportionately censoring and fact-checking conservative speakers. Many Democrats are concerned about censorship of communities of color, LGBTQ voices, and women and nonbinary people. Others are concerned that platforms promote disinformation, conspiracy theories, misinformation about voting, violence, and hate speech.
To sum up critics’ views: platforms are censoring people too much and not enough all at once. Somehow, policy makers think that the solution to these alleged problems is to expand the circumstances under which platforms can be liable for their users’ speech by amending Section 230.
To be clear, amending this provision will not solve any of these concerns. In fact, many of the proposed changes would exacerbate over-censorship, and other proposals would promote the proliferation of misinformation about voting. Yet President Trump and Congress continue to advocate for changes to the law in an effort to encourage the censorship they like and discourage the censorship they don’t.