An obscure section of government regulation doesn’t often become a hot-button issue. But that’s exactly what happened to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as Big Tech behaviors have angered politicians on both sides of the aisle.
The portion of Section 230 currently being debated is the “protection for ‘Good Samaritan’ blocking and screening of offensive material.” Under that heading, Section 230 says websites won’t be treated as publishers of the content people put online. It also prevents civil liability for taking “good faith” action against inappropriate content. Inappropriate is defined as “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” materials.
As more and more conservatives have complained social media companies are unfairly applying content policies to suppress their speech, the Trump administration and some congressional Republicans called for reform of Section 230.
After Twitter started fact-checking his tweets, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order to petition the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” immunity requirements. Former Attorney General William Barr released a blueprint for reform, calling on Congress to limit immunity and change the phrase “otherwise objectionable” to the less vague wording of “unlawful and promotes terrorism.” A handful of Senate Republicans also introduced a bill to narrow and redefine the standards for “good faith” immunity.
Some Democrats have also taken aim at Section 230 for different reasons. President Joe Biden called for outright repeal of immunity in January 2020. He claimed Facebook allowed a political ad with false information about his son Hunter to run on the platform. Other liberals wanted tech companies to lose government immunity if they allowed “hate speech” or content promoting violence.
The American Principles Project also released a blueprint for Section 230 reform in June 2020, calling for a return to the original intent of the regulations, to incentivize free speech and protect children from obscene content.
- Liberal voting advocacy groups filed suit in August 2020 against Trump’s social media executive order claiming it harms voters who receive information through social media.
- The FCC opened a 45-day public comment period on Aug. 3, 2020, to listen to feedback surrounding the Trump administration's petition to revise Section 230.
- Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and a few other Republicans introduced the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act in July 2020. It would not only define “good faith” behavior, but penalize platforms that fail to act in good faith. It would also open up companies to lawsuits.
- American Principles Project released its blueprint to amend Section 230, protect freedom of speech and children.
- In May 2020, Trump issued an executive order calling on the Commerce and Justice departments to write a petition to the FCC within 60 days. He wanted the FCC to make Section 230 much clearer so that social media platforms cannot just take down speech they disagree with. In July, the petition was filed with the FCC.
- Biden lashed out at Facebook over a political ad, calling for Section 230 immunity for Facebook and other tech companies to be immediately “revoked.”
- In August 2019, Trump drafted an executive order to encourage the FCC to clarify how social media like Facebook and Twitter handle content. The draft was not finalized.
- Hawley introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act in June 2019, designed to require companies to prove political neutrality and be certified by the Federal Trade Commission. Some conservatives warned this would reduce free speech and lead to the removal of “more conservative content, not less.”