In May, just days after we witnessed the killing of George Floyd sweep across the internet, President Donald Trump issued an executive order threatening the most important internet law that you’ve probably never heard of: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 provides protections for those companies or nonprofits hosting social media, comment or message boards. The organizations are not liable for content posted by others and, therefore, do not have responsibility to have lawyers censor every post or comment. Section 230 is the law that paved the way for diverse voices to rise up online — and weakening or repealing this foundational law, as both the president and president-elect seem to want, would mean fewer voices online. History tells us the first voices to go would likely be those in underrepresented groups.
Section 230 can best be described as “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” and it says that websites and apps aren’t considered liable for the content you or I put on the internet. It’s also the law that empowers online services to enforce codes of conduct that ban things like hate speech. Section 230 allows for the incredibly diverse set of voices you see on online platforms large and small — from individually filmed instances of police brutality and protests to Dana Williams-Johnson’s knitting blog.
Section 230 is the law that’s given underrepresented communities the ability to organize and leverage the internet for social good. The social movements we’ve seen over the last few years — like the nationwide Black Lives Matter marches, organizing for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, or efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline –would never have been as effective without social media. In all likelihood the freedom and creativity that has become Black Twitter wouldn’t exist without Section 230 protections.
Trump wants to force online platforms to be “neutral platforms” that can’t do things like delete hate speech or misinformation. But what’s really at stake here are the underrepresented voices that are rising up online.
President-Elect Joe Biden has also said he wants to “revoke” Section 230. Although Biden has different motivations for revoking Section 230, the consequences would be just as devastating for diverse voices online.
The government, and others, have often used censorship as a tool to silence minority communities. For example, take the case of NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware. White business owners in Claiborne County, Miss., sued a local NAACP chapter for boycotting local businesses, alleging that nonviolent protestors were responsible for the businesses’ lost earnings during the boycott. While the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the NAACP, the case shows how people can use the law to try and silence voices they don’t like. That’s exactly what’s at stake with Section 230.
The government’s efforts to silence underrepresented voices by interfering with speech aren’t new. But it’s particularly worrisome when these minority voices are using the internet to organize widespread protests. And while it’s not surprising, it’s especially concerning that the Trump administration appears to want government-mandated censorship to amplify its own messaging while censoring dissenting voices. Biden doesn’t seem to understand how important Section 230 is in uplifting diverse voices.
There’s plenty of bad content on the internet — content that platforms must take down. But revoking the very law that empowers platforms to remove that bad content, as both Trump and Biden both seem to want, shuts out important voices.
The alternative to using the internet to amplify our voices is waiting for traditional media to focus on our issues. There’s a heavy and immediate cost of going back to traditional grassroots organizing, and that’s what’s at stake when we talk about weakening Section 230. It should not be overlooked that at the same time the government is discussing making it harder for underrepresented communities to have outlets online, it is also pushing to ban end-to-end encryption in the United States — yet another move that would chill minority groups’ ability to organize.
We do not want the internet to be like the New York Times editorial board, where a largely monolithic group decides what’s “respectable” online. We want the Desus & Meros, VerySmartBrothas, and other content that is allowed to grow organically.
Trump’s executive order and Biden’s previous statements are just some of many attacks on Section 230 by the left and right. Instead of silencing voices online, we need to protect Section 230 and all of the voices and opportunities it enables.
Brian Woolfolk served as minority counsel on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and advised committee members and staff on constitutional, environmental antitrust, criminal justice and investigative issues; he previously served as legislative counsel to Congressman Robert C. (Bobby) Scott and currently works at Swan Creek Strategies providing telecommunications and information technology services in the Washington, D.C., area.
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