How the Section 230 Uproar Misses the Point

Section230_placeholder
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

One thing is certain: Big Tech’s era of growth going relatively unchecked by Washington is no more. 

Just look at how President Biden recently named outspoken Big Tech critics Tim Wu and Lina Khan to the National Economic Council and FTC, respectively.  

And of course, the Big Tech grilling spectacle is becoming increasingly in vogue, with the latest hearing occurring tomorrow (starting at 12 ET) that will see Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey testifying. 

Execs will discuss the role their platforms play in spreading misinformation and will likely also focus on discussing Section 230, according to Yahoo Finance.  

Ahead of the hearing, testimonies by each of the tech execs have been published. Zuckerberg suggested raising the bar for platforms receiving liability protection, while Pichai warned against the dangers of repealing Section 230. Dorsey mentioned new ways Twitter is combating misinformation, rather than explicitly made Section 230-related recommendations.

Washington’s loathing of Section 230 — legislation that generally offers protections to Internet platforms against liability regarding user posts — has been constant and bipartisan.  

Democratic Rep./House Antitrust Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline is working on a bill targeting Section 230, Reuters reported earlier this week. And it’s hard to forget when President Trump was fighting to outright repeal Section 230.  

The sources of Democratic and Republican Section 230 headaches differ (with censorship claims being absent from the former’s purview), but they do both inspire bills seemingly chiefly aimed at affecting tech giants like Google and Facebook. 

That’s not totally off base, given these tech giants have the biggest user bases and are responsible for some of the most memorable recent tech-industry blunders. At the same time, it is an issue to propose legislation that will harshly punish all for the mistakes of a deep-pocketed few. 

For example, Democratic leaders seem to agree on not repealing Section 230 altogether, but some Republicans, like Rep. Louie Gohmert, are still in favor of doing just that (see the AOC Act).  

And while repealing Section 230 could make tech giants take a more hands-off approach in content moderation (a plus for Republicans who feel they are censored), doing this would also likely hurt many that nobody (on the right or left) ever intended to punish. 

For example, Tor, a tool journalists use to communicate with whistleblowers and activists, could not function without Section 230. The legislation provides Tor, from a small nonprofit, against lawsuits that might otherwise be brought up by individuals or entities that believe the tool was used to damage them, as the Tor Project’s Al Smith recently pointed out.  

The AOC Act (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is understandably not connected) is just one of several Republican-sponsored bills that have been introduced in recent times.   

Meanwhile, there do exist proposed Section 230 bills that aim to bake in protections for smaller platforms, like the bipartisan-sponsored PACT Act. This updated bill, introduced on March 17, aims to increase transparency among the content-moderation practices of platforms and would require relevant companies to establish 40-hour-a-week-operating call centers to assist with user complaints. 

Companies with less than 1 million unique monthly visitors would be exempt from the call center requirement. But this could still be particularly burdensome for smaller or mid-size platforms or companies right on the cusp of that 1 million visitor threshold.  

Smaller platforms that host video or news adhering to such a requirement might be forced to cut budgets from other departments to make way for legal talent costs, in aim of ensuring they’re playing by the rules.  

And those budget cuts could lead to a decrease in the quality of certain smaller platforms, which might only end up driving more traffic to giants like Facebook and YouTube, which consistently rake in billions in ad revenue.  

It’s understandable, then, why Patreon head of policy Laurent Crenshaw in a recent interview said call centers, among other things being proposed to address Section 230, “sound better on paper.” 

Still, while call centers might sound better on paper, they are in the bills that seem more likely to become law than the bills proposing wholesale changes, such as Section 230 being repealed. 

Proposing drastic changes to Section 230 is attention-grabbing and may even be more inspiring, but it’s a mistake to adopt an all-or-nothing attitude when thinking about the legislation. If changes were that easy, as Duke University’s Center for Science & Technology Policy director Matt Perault has pointed out, there simply wouldn’t be so many Section 230 proposals.