After announcing significant troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump’s surprise last-minute moves continued this week. On Wednesday the departing president threatened (via Twitter, of course) to veto the annual military spending bill if Congress doesn’t repeal a key article providing legal protection to the social media platforms.
In his sights is section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The section reads, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Thus, the law protects platforms from liability for potentially illegal speech or content posted by users on their platforms. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”
Trump’s move is a vindictive pot-shot against tech companies that the American president blames for his election defeat. He called the law “corporate welfare” and “a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity.”
Despite being history’s most social media-embedded president, Trump has repeatedly accused of the platforms of bias. The White House in fact launched a website allowed users to submit their experiences of bias on social media. The concern was piqued by Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban the Hunter Biden story in the New York Post prior to the election. (Twitter’s rationale is available here.)
Big tech will be taking Trump’s threat seriously, given that it is difficult to imagine how Facebook and Twitter, in particular, could possibly operate were they legally responsible for every defamatory speech act they host. At the same time, the threat appears even less than half-baked.
In 2019, Trump reportedly ordered the Federal Communications Commission to draft regulations for social media on their rights and responsibilities when suppressing content. Yet faced with the size and complexity of the task, the White House appeared to drop the whole question.
Trump is clearly playing the sore loser here, but the right move can be made for the wrong reasons. Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden himself have suggested rewriting section 230, though Biden has since gone quiet on the subject.
The unchecked power of the information platforms remains the big unanswered question here. While the platforms have demonstrated relative impartiality so far, we would be naïve to think that in the long-run they’ll behave differently from every media monopoly that has come before, and that they will somehow be completely uninterested in leveraging their political influence for financial gain.