Ending Section 230 will hurt free speech on the internet
On Tuesday, President Trump announced that he intended to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if it doesn't include a provision deleting Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. Trump's purpose is to clip the tech tyrants' wings, something that badly needs doing. However, he's going about it the wrong way and should rethink his announced plan.
Once upon a time, the internet was a place of freedom and creativity. The early internet companies offered platforms on which people could publish unmediated content. The companies were the equivalent of giant bulletin boards. No one expected them to police the content that people around the world placed on these bulletin board–like platforms.
Some of the first people to recognize the internet's promise were pornographers. The federal government had long regulated pornography on radio and television to protect minors from being exposed to it. In February 1996, Congress passed, and Bill Clinton signed, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). The CDA's entire purpose was to criminalize knowingly exposing minors to internet pornography.
The CDA had a carve-out, however, for companies that only hosted other people's content. Thus, the government could prosecute "XXX Pornography Company" for prohibited conduct, but it could not prosecute the company that provided the server on which XXX Pornography Co. operated. This carve-out is known as Section 230. Its primary clause 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.
Section 230 means that YouTube can't be prosecuted if a third party puts up child pornography videos, and, if you have a WordPress blog, WordPress is not criminally liable if you try to have others join you in sedition. However, under Section 230, if WordPress starts having a say in the content (e.g., de-platforming The Conservative Treehouse because it dislikes its politics), WordPress ceases being a neutral provider.
Put another way, the Act distinguishes between being a publisher, with content control, and being a bulletin board.
We older folks remember a time when the social media providers, the video platforms, the email services, and all the other companies that gave ordinary people a voice had no say at all in how the ordinary people chose to use that voice. However, we've also seen how big tech companies have become more involved in controlling third party content. They delete content, censor it, de-platform people, add editorial comments, and generally exert enormous control over what third parties place on their sites.
The big tech companies are no longer neutral bulletin boards. They are now active editors.
Much of the tech companies' editing energy is directed at silencing or otherwise marginalizing conservative voices, from President Trump on down. A Media Research Center poll showed that shockingly large numbers of Biden voters said they would have switched their votes to Trump if they'd known three news stories that the tech companies aggressively silenced: Biden's alleged sexual assault, Biden's corrupt partnership with his son, and Trump's successful Middle East peace initiatives.
Since the election, the tech tyrants have continued to editorialize and censor conservative content. Sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, at a minimum, put warning labels on tweets, posts, or videos that do not conform to the Democrat view of the election (i.e., that Biden is the unquestioned "president-elect"). That's at minimum. Frequently, people find their content deleted or that they've been de-platformed.
It's no wonder, then, that Trump wants to clip the tech tyrants' wings. His latest effort was a Tuesday-night tweet in which he said that he would veto the National Defense Authorization Act unless it eliminated section 230:
.....Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2020
Trump's instincts are correct: the tech tyrants need to be reined in because, having taken control of the public square, they are systematically destroying the First Amendment. (Read more here.)
However, the answer is not to end Section 230. As it exists now, Section 230 protects smaller sites that openly host third-party content, such as Bitchute, Parler, and Rumble. It no longer harms the tyrannical big sites, which have deep pockets and artificial intelligence to avoid Section 230's reach. The big sites, therefore, agree with ending Section 230 because it will also destroy their competition.
The best approach is simply to say that, if the tech tyrants are going to act like publishers by editing content on their sites, they are no longer entitled to Section 230's protections. They can then be sued and criminally prosecuted.
This video from Styxhexenhammer666 provides more information about Trump's error, which he still has time to correct:
Image: Bulletin Board. Public domain at pxhere.