Why Are Major Politicians Spreading Misinformation About Section 230?

Both political parties might find it useful to attack Section 230, but it’s not clear either understands it — or even wants to.

Robert Winterton
Jan 17 · 3 min read

“Section 230 should be revoked,” Joe Biden told the New York Times in an interview published this morning.

This is not the first time the crucial internet law has come under attack by the Democratic presidential front-runner. Back in November, Biden alluded to the law, saying “I, for one, think we should be considering taking away [Facebook’s] exemption that they cannot be sued for knowingly engaged in promoting something that’s not true” (we’ll explain why this is incorrect later).

For a good explanation of what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is, click here.

Biden’s not alone: Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested the law could be repealed, and fought the inclusion of Section 230-style language in USMCA.

And some of Biden’s fellow Democratic candidates have also advocated for changing Section 230. Andrew Yang, for example, has argued that Section 230 needed to be amended to create “accountability” for spreading false news. And last August, former candidate Beto O’Rourke released a plan to amend Section 230 to tackle hate speech — a position he later removed from his platform.

Biden stands alone in unequivocally calling for a full repeal, though.

None of these candidates acknowledge that it’s the First Amendment, not Section 230 that protects false news and hate speech.

Biden and Pelosi have pushed social media to remove allegedly misleading news about them — but often these articles are written, published, and shared by conservatives.

If social media platforms did as demanded and removed conservative articles, Republicans like Sen. Hawley, Sen. Cruz, and Tucker Carlson would complain that Section 230 is responsible for alleged social media censorship of conservatives, as they have done before.

Sens. Hawley and Cruz, as well as other conservative figures like Tucker Carlson, have routinely claimed Section 230 is what allows social media services to “censor” content left-wing people don’t like. While this isn’t true (the First Amendment allows that), Republican claims directly contradict with Democratic claims that Section 230 is what enables social media to keep this very content up.

Even if Section 230 were repealed, neither Republicans nor Democrats would get what they want.

All Section 230 does is enable online services to curate content made by their users, be that political opinions or short-term rental listings. The law does not and constitutionally cannot require online services to remove misleading or even blatantly false political content.

It’s the First Amendment that almost always protects our right to be wrong, be it on Facebook or on TV. Removing Section 230 wouldn’t help Republicans out either: the First Amendment, not Section 230, is what allows online services to refuse to host content on the basis of political persuasion.

If Biden could repeal Section 230 himself, he’d be very disappointed by the results.

Without Section 230, the threat of bad-faith lawsuits would push websites to remove any user-created content that could even vaguely be considered illegal. Some may like the sound of this, but major content takedowns would include forums to help drug addicts and negative business reviews.

The repeal of Section 230 would have a negligible impact on unmoderated websites like 8chan as courts precedent dictates when no moderation exists, sites are not held liable for user-created content. Without the legal protection to moderate content, many sites would choose to cease all content curation, allowing everything from hardcore porn and illegal drug sales.

(For more about the history of laws on hosting content produced by others, read Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet.”)

No politician mentioned in this piece has explained exactly how removing Section 230 would improve the internet. Supporters of Section 230 routinely cite specific harms such a move would do to free speech and free enterprise online.

These politicians don’t realize that a Section 230 repeal would cripple review sites like Yelp, short-term rental platforms like Airbnb, e-commerce sites like Etsy, general listings sites like Craigslist, and educational sites like Wikipedia.

Which raises the question — if Republican and Democratic arguments for repealing or radically amending Section 230 won’t work, why do they keep repeating them?

NetChoice

The home on Medium for all things NetChoice. Here, we publish opinion pieces on issues that we cover — fighting to break down barriers to e-commerce.

Robert Winterton

Written by

Dir. of Comms @NetChoice. Fmr @Techfreedom comms guy. Opinions not necessarily those of NetChoice.

NetChoice

NetChoice

The home on Medium for all things NetChoice. Here, we publish opinion pieces on issues that we cover — fighting to break down barriers to e-commerce.

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