Back in May, President Trump issued a highly controversial executive order, aimed at limiting the legal protections available to social media companies, under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The action followed Twitter’s decision to, for the first time, fact check a pair of the president’s tweets.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly,” Trump said, per an NPR report from May. “A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.”
Legal observers questioned whether the president had the power to limit Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies in this way. Twitter, in a statement at the time, called Trump’s order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”
Under Section 230—which states that “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.”—tech platforms cannot be held liable for things users say or do on their platforms. So if someone uses Twitter to make a death threat or do something else illegal, the person posting can be held liable, but Twitter itself cannot.
On Wednesday, the Department of Justice unveiled draft legislation that will likely comprise the next step of the administration’s war with the social media sector.
Per CNBC, the proposed legislation “aims to narrow the criteria online platforms must meet to earn the liability protections granted by Section 230,” and would also “carve out the statute’s immunity for certain cases, like offenses involving child sexual abuse.”
Other bills, to that effect, have already been introduced in Congress, mostly by Republicans. Conservatives and Republicans have frequently been critical of Twitter and other social media platforms for perceived bias against them, especially when it comes to bans of certain users and fact-checking warnings placed on the president and other users.
This was a major topic when the four leading tech CEOs testified before Congress in late July, and Rep. Jim Jordan claimed that the tech companies are “out to get conservatives.”
The proposed change would, like all legislation, require passage by Congress. With the House controlled by the Democrats, it would appear unlikely to pass under the current composition of the Congress.
Earlier this week, in a lawsuit that would appear to fly in the face of Section 230, a group of victims of the recent violence in Kenosha, Wisc., filed a suit in federal court against Facebook. The suit claims, per Buzzfeed, that the social media giant “empowered right wing militias to inflict extreme violence and deprive Plaintiffs and protestors of their rights.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.