A newly-proposed change to Section 230 would introduce legal liability for online platforms and forums for third-party speech. It is being suggested as a way of combating alleged racial and social online injustices. According to critics, however, the bill is ill-conceived and has the potential to transform large parts of the internet for the worse and empower powerful players against smaller competitors.
Section 230 has become a hot topic in the US in recent years. Under this law, which “defined how the Internet works”, platforms adopting a hands-off approach to content moderation cannot be held reliable for harmful or illegal third-party content hosted by them. The protections under the law do not extend to sites which filter users’ submissions and curate content featured on the page. As the Washington Post recounts, the Section was created in the wake of two lawsuits in the 1990s – against Prodigy Services and against CompuServe – coming to similar conclusions.
The provision has come under criticism from both Democratic and Republican legislators, albeit for different reasons. The goal of Republicans, including former president Trump, was to address selective political censorship which has been repeatedly alleged against Silicon Valley online platforms. For example, in December last year, Trump attempted to use his veto power over a proposed defence bill as leverage against the Congress to outright repeal Section 230.
On the other hand, critics of the law among the Democrats have been blaming social media platforms for being reluctant or slow to remove content deemed as harmful, from hostile communication perceived as harassment to the spread of unreliable information.