Former vice president and 2020 Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden has been so frustrated with Facebook and other tech companies that he suggested making one of the most significant changes to the internet ever made.
While talking to the New York Times , Biden suggested outright revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides websites protection from being held liable for things posted on them.
“[ The New York Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued,” Biden said. “But [Facebook] can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one.”
His suggestion was in response to Facebook sticking to its guns and allowing politicians to post potentially false information on its platform, calling the content “newsworthy” and arguing that its users should see that content and come to a conclusion themselves.
“Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company, in effect, become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would be,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a speech. “In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.”
Facebook’s policy comes after two years of being accused by conservatives of stifling or censoring content critical of liberals. But removing Section 230 could fundamentally change the internet forever.
“The internet as we know it wouldn’t exist, to be blunt,” Matthew Feeney, director of the Cato Institute’s project on emerging technologies, said. “It’s the piece of legislation that allows the internet that we all know to exist in the first place. Someone once called it the Magna Carta of the internet, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.”
The Communication Decency Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. It was initially crafted to protect users from being exposed to obscene content, but many people took issue with provisions in the act they say targeted free speech, leading to the law getting stripped through the years.
“There were a couple of court cases in the 1990s that were giving conflicting guidance to these websites. In one case, if you’re not engaging in content moderation at all, then you’re a distributor with no liability, like a bookstore,” Feeney said. “But a few years later, there was a different case that said that if you engage in any content moderation, then you’re a publisher. Absent 230, you have to pick one of these two worlds. There just wouldn’t be a Facebook or a YouTube.”
In essence, without Section 230, websites would either have to not moderate content at all, ending up with sites full of possibly racist, pornographic, excessively violent content or every single piece of content having to be approved by a group of lawyers.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has referred to Section 230 as a “gift” to Big Tech companies. Still, it protects smaller websites that aren’t capable of moderating every piece of content users post, such as comments. While their animosity focuses on Facebook and Google, revoking Section 230 could allow Big Tech companies to maintain an even deeper monopoly over the discourse on the internet as they have the resources to comb through all the content. At the same time, smaller websites could get litigated out of existence if their users’ content violates the law. Despite recent bipartisan complaints, revoking Section 230 still appears to be an unlikely and unpopular move.
“I don’t view this as a serious policy proposal,” Feeney said. “I don’t know of anyone in the technology policy world that advocates for outright revoking of the entire Section 230. I think this is a pipe dream. What this does politically is just signal to people that Joe Biden isn’t happy with Facebook. If he does have someone on staff advising him on this, I can’t imagine that they’ve spent much time thinking about technology policy. I don’t think that’s seriously a world anyone in the 21st century wants to live in.”
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