Big Tech companies, from Facebook to Apple, took quick action after the attack on the US Capitol, banning the people and content that helped set up and stage a violent mob that killed at least five people and injured dozens. The most prominent ban involved President Trump, who was arguably chosen for the platforms that have now turned against him.
But those measures came too late for some Democratic lawmakers who have been raising the alarm about disinformation and extremist content on the Internet for months or even years. And soon they will have the power to do something about it. Section 230 reform, which President Trump attempted and did not implement, is back on the table. This time it will probably look a little different than he wanted.
Section 230 is the law that grants Internet platforms immunity from what their users post on them. It arguably makes the internet as we know it possible, but this protection has become a concern for members of both parties who believe these platforms are doing harm. Where they diverge is what that damage is. While Republicans believe platforms are unfairly censoring conservative statements, some Democrats believe platforms reinforce misinformation and extremist content.
Now Democrats have an example by which to defend their cause, an example that directly affected almost every member of Congress.
Tech companies took action. Democrats say it's not enough.
Several technology companies have either cleaned up their own platforms, deleted users and posts promoting violence and conspiracy theories, or disabled the ability of other "free speech" platforms to do the same.
Nonetheless, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who sponsored a bipartisan Section 230 Reform Act told Recode in March last year that the Capitol attack "will extend and focus the need for Congress to reform Big Tech's privileges and obligations. This begins with reforming Section 230, preventing fundamental rights violations. , stopping the destructive use of Americans' private data and other apparent damage. "
Big Tech's self-imposed reforms, Blumenthal argues, are both overdue and politically useful.
"It took blood and glass in the halls of Congress – and a change in the political wind – for the most powerful tech companies in the world to recognize at the last minute Donald Trump's profound threat," he said. "The question is not why Facebook and Twitter acted, it took so long and why others didn't?"
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who owns the Protect Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act with Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) last October, who is removing immunity protections from platforms that bolster certain types of hateful or extremist content, is also ready to take action against Section 230 reform. She will propose her bill "early in this Congress" update and reenter, she told Recode.
"Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and many smaller platforms provided violent rioters with a platform to organize and share dangerous disinformation, while at the same time inspiring and encouraging rebellion and sedition against our republic," Eshoo told Recode. "The reckless actions and inactivity of these companies played a colossal role in Wednesday's attack on the Capitol, which must be addressed."
She added, "Congress and the new administration must prioritize taking swift and bold action in Section 230 reform to hold these companies accountable and protect our democracy … These companies have shown themselves to be will not only do the right thing. "
They are not alone in their calls to reform Section 230 to address the violent content and misinformation that social media companies have allowed on their platforms.
Joe Biden said a year ago on the president's campaign trail that he wanted Section 230 to be repealed, calling Facebook "totally irresponsible" regarding the way it handled misinformation and privacy and saying that like anyone else, the company should have civil liability to be. Biden hasn't commented on section 230 since, but a campaign spokesman told Recode last November that his feelings on the topic had not changed.
Last October, members of the Senate Commerce Committee met with CEOs of Facebook, Google's Alphabet and Twitter to discuss the law. Republicans took the time to protest against those platforms for alleged censorship of conservative votes. Democrats, however, were concerned that the platforms were helping to incite and organize extremists – concerns that now seem prescient.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said right-wing militias on Facebook are an "ongoing problem." Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) pointed out that the platforms had a financial incentive to keep users on them for as long as possible, and that Facebook did this by bolstering political divisive content and conspiracy theories. And Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) cited a foiled plot to kidnap his state governor, Gretchen Whitmer, part of which was planned in a private Facebook group, as an example of harmful content on the website.
"Here's the truth: violence and hate speech online are real problems," said Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). "Anti-conservative bias is not a problem."
He added, “The problem isn't that the companies are taking too many posts for us today. The problem is, they leave too many dangerous messages. "
The failed Republican case for Section 230 reform
Supporters of Section 230 no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when the Republican Party pushing for repeal lost much of its power to keep its promises when it lost the presidency and then the senate.
Not long ago, section 230 reform was a twofold issue. The two sides met in 2018 to amend the law with FOSTA-SESTA, lifting the Article 230 immunity from platforms used for sex trafficking. That said, some Democrats who voted to pass FOSTA-SESTA since they changed their mind, citing the unintended consequences of the law of endangering sex workers by mutual consent. And when Republicans changed their view of Section 230 reform to their rallying cry, it may have become less palatable for the Democrats, who turned to antitrust laws as a way to control Big Tech's power.
Republicans increasingly politicized the Section 230 reform during the second half of President Trump's single term, seeing it as a way to punish social media platforms for perceived biased moderation and censorship of conservative votes. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) often quoted Section 230 – and the Big Tech companies it protected – as the "greatest threat to our freedom of speech and democracy." Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced multiple accounts that targeted Section 230 as part of its anti-Big Tech push.
Section 230 repeal became a kind of white whale for President Trump; he tried to revoke it through his Attorney General Bill Barr, executive orders, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Trump ended 2020 and demanded that Congress include Section 230 repeal in unrelated bills for stimulus controls and military spending – going so far as to veto the latter for not including it.
Trump Failed: Congress Overruled Its Veto; Barr ran away for Christmas; and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, with one foot out the door, Protocol told that he would not continue to set FCC rules on the law. Meanwhile, Republicans will soon be the minority party in both houses of Congress, and Cruz and Hawley, the loudest cheerleaders of Section 230 reform, have become pariahs. It is doubtful that many will listen for a while to what they have to say about Big Tech or anything else.
The case against Section 230 reform
While laws targeting extremist social media content right after the riot seem like a particularly attractive prospect, advocates of free speech warn that, like FOSTA-SESTA, any amendment to Section 230 could have unintended consequences.
“We understand the desire to permanently suspend (Trump) now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter exercise the uncontrolled power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable to billions' speeches – especially when the political reality that makes decisions easier, "Kate Ruane, senior legal adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in the statement." President Trump may turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others – like the many Black, Brown and LGBTQ activists who have been censored by social media companies – will not have that luxury. ”
And there is at least one Democrat who is still against Section 230 reform: Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the co-author of the law.
"Again, I remind my colleagues that it is the First Amendment, not Section 230, that protects hate speech, disinformation and lies online and offline," Wyden told Recode. "Pretending that repealing one law will solve our country's problems is a fantasy."
Wyden called for the prosecution of rioters, politicians urging them to resign, law enforcement agencies who ignored their threats to be investigated, saying that every outlet – online and offline – gave that "oxygen to Trump's lies about the election". # 39; what was bored. responsibility for the result. But he warned against doing too much too soon.
"Congress need look no further than 9/11 to remember how violently shocking reactions to tragedies can backfire and ultimately harm the least powerful racial, religious and ideological groups in our country," Wyden said. “It would be a terrible mistake to use this event as an excuse to strengthen government surveillance, suppress free speech online or limit the rights of legitimate protesters. In particular, I am sure that any law intended to block despicable far-right utterances on the Internet would inevitably be a weapon to target protesters against police brutality, unnecessary wars, and others who have a legitimate reason to organize online against government measures. "
In a way, Cruz's attacks on Section 230 were right: with Trump launched from the largest websites in the world, and alternative platforms like Parler starting with the services and distributors they need to function, Big Tech has indeed proven the to be an arbiter of what speech is allowed on most of the internet. It remains to be seen where that will lead.
The full repeal of Section 230 that Trump was screaming for on his now banned Twitter account is unlikely – that would turn the entire Internet upside down – but the kind of reform that many Democrats have been calling for is entirely possible. Ironically, what Trump failed to achieve as president could happen under his successor, and that will be partly due to Trump's own actions.
It won't be the reform Trump wanted, and he won't be on most social media platforms to see them change. He is no longer welcome on the sites he loved and hated the most.
Open source is powered by Omidyar Network. All open source content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.