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§ Section 230
Enacted in 1996, § Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) states that “No provider or user of an internet computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any content provided by a third party”. In other words, social media platforms will not be held responsible for content that is hosted on them, except for federal crimes (e.g. terrorism or child abuse)
Passed more than 20 years ago, Section 230 has been the blueprint for the internet we know today. It is a legal framework that heavily relies on user generated content as opposed to the content that companies create. Fundamentally, Section 230 grants the Tech companies immunity from lawsuits regarding the content on their platforms. This gives them the freedom to run their businesses without fear of negative repercussions.
The executive order
Last year in August, President Donald Trump prepared an executive order that would challenge the Federal Communications Commission to create rules that could inhibit the protection of Section 230. This action was not received positively with the legal experts and regulators. Subsequently, the White House seemed to have lost interest and it was tabled until this year in May when it was actively considered following a feud where Twitter flagged Trump’s post as “glorifying violence”. Trump signed the executive order on Thursday 28th of May with the aim of limiting the legal shield that protects the social media platforms from taking liability for user generated content.
Since his inauguration, Trump and his administration believe that social media platforms unfairly censor their content. What added fuel to the fire was when Twitter carried out a fact check of Trump’s posts that disproved his claim about mail-in ballots. This made Trump even more furious and he hastily vowed to make greater regulations concerning social media sites.
Tech companies and industry advocates state that modifying Section 230 alters the original purpose of the act. They further caution that the order which supposedly seeks to protect free speech by stopping the flagging of posts, will actually have the opposite effect.
The impact of Section 230 reform
The implementation of Section 230 depends on an array of Democratic lawmakers, conservative advocacy groups and free-speech activists. The amendment of Section 230 will mean that users will be directed to file their complains to the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) who will investigate to determine whether the platforms rightfully and lawfully flag content. Furthermore, the reform will gain liberty in interpreting the law and compel agencies to follow it rather than the interpretation offered by Congress or the courts.
Facebook’s take on this is that the government could hold tech platforms responsible e.g. by setting a compulsory median response time for removing posts. This would in fact hurt instead of help Content Moderation as they will be under pressure to timely remove the content and hereby stop screening older posts which might leak through despite being inappropriate for the audiences.
Google also denounced the reform by stating that they follow clear content policies and enforce them neutrally without taking any political stand. They continued to add that their platform has empowered many people and organizations by not only giving them a voice, but also creating new ways to reach their audiences. They believe that altering Section 230 will hurt the economy and global leadership on internet freedom.
Twitter proclaimed that the order is a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law that was created to protect innovation and freedom of expression underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally remodel it threatens internet freedom and the future of online speech.”
A Washington-based tech group filed a lawsuit against President Trump declaring that his order violates the First Amendment which “restricts government officials from using their power to retaliate against an entity or individual for engaging in protected speech”. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) believes that the target is to chill and curtail free speech which undermines the efforts of social media companies in ensuring their platforms are used responsibly even during elections. The lawsuit comes after a long-standing clash between the social media companies and Trump’s administration.
Many civil rights groups and internet freedom agencies condemn Trump’s order with the co-creator of Section 230 Senator Ron Wyden saying Trump’s action is “plainly illegal”. Facebook also released a statement affirming that the company upholds freedom of expression in their services whilst protecting communities from toxic content including posts designed to stop voters from exercising their voting rights.
Even though Trump’s order hasn’t taken full effect, the modification of Section 230 will most likely have a counterproductive effect that could push the social media companies to impose stricter regulations than before. Ironically, this would hinder Trump who heavily relies on social media to spread his views and statements which are often partly or entirely untrue.
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