Editor’s Note: Ron Wyden is a senator from Oregon. He is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
There has never been a more important time to fight for free speech online than right now.
President Donald Trump is waging an all-out war on the press and nearly anyone who tries to hold him accountable or point out his lies, including Twitter.
At the same time, images and videos of horrific police violence against black Americans — especially the deeply disturbing killing of George Floyd — have been posted to Facebook and Twitter, sparking an outpouring of anger and protest. Videos of unacceptable brutality against peaceful protesters have filled up our social media feeds.
A law Americans probably don’t talk about at the dinner table each night, called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is crucial to both of these stories.
Republican Congressman Chris Cox and I wrote Section 230 in 1996 to give up-and-coming tech companies a sword and a shield, and to foster free speech and innovation online.
Essentially, 230 says that users, not the website that hosts their content, are the ones responsible for what they post, whether on Facebook or in the comments section of a news article. That’s what I call the shield.
But it also gave companies a sword so that they can take down offensive content, lies and slime — the stuff that may be protected by the First Amendment but that most people do not want to experience online. And so they are free to take down white supremacist content or flag tweets that glorify violence (as Twitter did with President Trump’s recent tweet) without fear of being sued for bias or even of having their site shut down. Section 230 gives the executive branch no leeway to do either.
That’s not to say that social media companies have it all figured out. In fact, I have a lot of complaints with the big tech companies when it comes to violating Americans’ privacy. I even wrote legislation that would put executives like Mark Zuckerberg in jail if they lie to the government about protecting Americans’ privacy. And Facebook, in particular, seems to prioritize preserving what Trump says rather than focusing on creating a more welcoming platform for many users.
However, it is undeniable that social media — as a direct result of Section 230 — has been a huge megaphone for people who want to challenge those in power.
But now, as part of his crusade against social media companies, Trump is proposing to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Without Section 230, sites would have strong incentives to go one of two ways: either sharply limit what users can post, so as to avoid being sued, or to stop moderating entirely, something like 8chan — now operating under the name 8kun — where anonymous users can post just about anything and speech supporting racism and sexism is common.
I think we would be vastly worse off in either scenario. Just look at Black Lives Matter and the protests against police violence over the past week as an example. The cellphone video that captured the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck spread across social media platforms — and it’s the reason Americans learned about his unjust killing in the first place. So many of these cases of unconscionable use of force against black Americans have come to light as a result of videos posted to social media.
In a world without 230, I cannot imagine that Facebook or Twitter would allow posts about police violence that could possibly be defamatory. These horrible injustices would never get the public attention they deserve. And accountability would be even less likely.
Now what it seems Trump would like is the other scenario — for platforms to be “neutral.” Let’s not kid ourselves. Trump’s attempt to abolish Section 230 is essentially a way of bullying social media companies so that he may post what he wants without any challenge.
And so without 230, I think that a lot of sites would choose not to moderate at all, and thus avoid responsibility for anything their users post. It goes without saying that there would be a lot more false, dangerous content out there, from revenge porn to posts supporting white supremacy. The internet would become the cesspool that anti-230 activists claim it is today.
I’ve seen some commentators say Trump would be in big trouble without Section 230. I couldn’t disagree more.
Trump is the president of the United States of America — the most powerful person in the world. He can call a press conference, which news networks will likely carry live, get reporters to repeat his statements and have an army of surrogates parrot his talking points on every imaginable medium.
If Twitter banned Trump tomorrow, he wouldn’t have any trouble spreading his message to every corner of the world.
But without 230, the people without power — people leading movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter — would find it far harder to challenge the big corporations and powerful institutions. Without 230, I believe that not a single #MeToo post would have been allowed on moderated sites.
So that’s why I strongly oppose the president’s executive order, and legislation like the EARN IT Act, by senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal, which would give Trump and Attorney General William Barr massive leverage to dictate speech online.
Americans don’t want to be at the mercy of speech police, online or anywhere else. Section 230 gives sites, speakers and readers choices, and ensures that those choices will survive the hostility of those with power. It would be a terrible mistake to do away with it, especially now.