By David J. Johns
October 29, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
Policymakers have launched an all-out attack against a rule that has guided the internet since its inception.
Eliminating this rule — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — would do far more harm than good. It would particularly threaten Black and Latinx LGBTQ/Same Gender Loving people by shifting or preventing the ways we communicate, advocate and organize. This is an important acknowledgment because Black and Latinx people who are also LGBTQ/SGL are often erased in conversations about the larger communities, and because policies that disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities expose threats to members of every community.
Right now, the ability to express oneself and freely access information online is literally on the line.
Section 230 governs the internet and the online freedom we cherish. The law prevents tech companies from being held legally liable for most information posted on social platforms (user-generated content), while protecting their ability to remove harmful and unlawful content in a way that best serves the needs of their users. This week, the Senate held a hearing with major tech CEOs, focused on the rule.
Without Section 230, platforms could be held liable for nearly anything that appears online. This could have the unintended consequence of silencing conversations started by and/or about people from marginalized communities, as platforms seek to avoid scrutiny or legal action.
Consider the following: If someone wanted to bring attention to police misconduct by posting a video showing George Floyd’s murder, platforms might block it for fear of legal backlash. Fact-based links about the Movement for Black Lives or the reclaiming of the name “Proud Boys” by the LGBTQ/SGL community could be flagged and blocked, with no recourse.
The threat of changes to 230 has already made the work of social justice organizations and activists like me more challenging. Recent attempts to share critical messages during National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and Spirit Day — which raises awareness about the bullying and violence that LGBTQ/SGL students face in schools — have been blocked by platforms anticipating liability.
Of course, today’s internet is far from perfect and we must embrace regulation to fix it. Weakening or eliminating Section 230 is not the answer.
Regardless of this fact, Section 230 faces major threats from all sides. The Republican motives are unsurprising: They claim platforms are maliciously removing conservative content — a far cry from reality. In May, the Trump administration issued an executive order seeking changes to Section 230 and accusing social media companies of political bias. It should not be lost on anyone that the order came two days after Twitter slapped a fact-check on a couple of the president’s tweets about mail-in voting. Then, in late September, Attorney General William Barr submitted legislation to Congress to reform the rule.
The intention seems clear: Republicans want to reshape the internet to advance their political goals and protect conservative viewpoints – even if they promote disinformation or voter suppression, or attract racism and hate speech.
Some Democrats, too, are hoping to weaken the law, but for different reasons. They want increased regulation of the content on social media platforms as part of well-intentioned efforts to combat hate speech against vulnerable communities and to address the efforts of white supremacists to radicalize and organize online. The irony here, of course, is that despite the dramatic differences in desired outcomes, Democrats could inadvertently partner with Republicans to make the internet less safe and valuable for communities like mine. They must be careful of the potential consequences of these reforms. Legislation that some support, like the EARN IT Act — while well-intentioned — could have significant repercussions for privacy and security.
If these misguided efforts to weaken Section 230 succeed, Black, Latinx and diverse LGBTQ/SGL communities will suffer disproportionately. Members of our community will be blocked from fully accessing information and communicating online — a place where so many of us find our only sources of solace, crisis support, and community. Where else could we broadly and efficiently share information about things like COVID-19, transphobia, anti-Blackness and police brutality without it being obscured by a corporate, state or media agenda?
We cannot allow the rules of the internet to be re-written in favor of those with power and privilege, especially at this moment in the Movement for Black Lives. The internet must remain free and open to all. Section 230 is critical to our internet freedom.
David J. Johns serves as the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and same-gender-loving people.
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