The Justice Department has officially proposed amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to remove certain forms of legal immunity from tech companies based on the content on their platforms. Specifically, Attorney General Bill Barr is proposing that platforms can be sued for enabling content that promotes stalking, trafficking, or other criminal activity, and would require platforms to explain why content is being moderated.
Why Section 230 became so important:
- Section 230 is largely credited with the development of the modern internet, as it shielded companies like Facebook and Twitter from being held liable for the content posted by users.
- As an example, if someone on Facebook makes an unfounded accusation against you that results in you losing your job, you can sue that person for libel, but you can't sue Facebook. They aren't currently held responsible – just as a company that makes cork boards isn't responsible for an offensive photo someone puts up on one with a thumbtack.
- It's likely that, without this law, social media companies wouldn't have been able to grow so massively. However, there have also been persistent concerns about how the law shields companies that are slow to remove harmful content. For example, should 8chan be held liable for hosting the El Paso shooter's racist manifesto?
Trump's personal grievances:
The current push to amend Section 230 may largely be due to President Trump's personal animosity toward platforms that moderate him. In May, he signed an executive order that opened the door for federal agencies to reinterpret Section 230. This happened just two days after Twitter first added labels to two Trump tweets which falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are "substantially fraudulent." Twitter's labels linked to information about how mail-in ballots are generally considered safe and effective, and are "rarely linked to voter fraud."