Will Section 230 be reformed, and if so, what will that mean for digital media more broadly?
After months of calls for reforms to internet protection laws, today, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google all faced a US Senate Committee hearing which sought to establish the parameters for a possible re-think of Section 230 laws, which, technically, provide a level of protection for digital platforms over the content posted by users.
Kind of. First, before looking at today's discussion, which honestly didn't seem to progress anything, let's take a look at the actual wording of Section 230 to understand what, precisely, is at stake.
The specific regulation in question is this:
"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"
The key element in this instance is the provider part - the law states that no web service provider will be treated as the publisher with respect to what users post. That means, for example, that if someone on Twitter says something defamatory about you, you can't sue Twitter for hosting that content.
As noted, in recent months, this has become a key point of debate, most specifically because of Twitter's decision back in June to add a warning label to these tweets.
....living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
In response, US President Donald Trump accused Twitter of bias, adding to previous concerns he had raised about social platforms potentially restricting conservative speech.
A few days later, Trump got the ball rolling on the push for a change to the law, which eventually lead to a White House Executive Order calling for the review of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
REVOKE 230!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
Which has lead us to here, with Zuck, Dorsey and Pichai appearing before the Senate. But as with the lead-up, much of the proceedings seemed more aligned with pushing an agenda, as opposed to genuine discussion about the technicalities of the law.
Several Senators took the opportunity to criticize Dorsey over Twitter's actions to, in their view, censor conservatives unfairly. Dorsey was given various examples of other world leaders who've violated Twitter's rules, but haven't seen punishment, while Trump has had warnings added to his tweets.
Senator Ted Cruz went on the full offensive:
"Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super pac, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs."
Cruz was specifically referring to a recent New York Post story about Presidential Candidate Joe Biden's son and his business dealings. The report has been largely criticized for its factual inaccuracies, which lead to both Twitter and Facebook initially moving to halt sharing of the article. But Twitter actually stopped people sharing the report based on its Hacked Materials Policy, not based on misinformation. Twitter has since reversed its decision, and users can no share the article freely, but many saw those initial responses as censorship, and they took the opportunity to raise the issue with Dorsey personally,
Which many have speculated was the actual purpose of today's session, at least in the view of some Senators. With just days till the election, the emphasis appeared to be on trying to scare both Twitter and Facebook into holding off on blocking the circulation of certain reports, which may be classified as misinformation, in the lead up to polling day.
Indeed, Pichai saw little questioning, and Dorsey copped the brunt of the discussion.
For their part, the platforms argued that paring back Section 230 protections could harm free expression on the internet, and could stop platforms from undertaking critical work "such as removing hate speech and harassment that impacts the safety and security of their communities".
Zuckerberg did note that Section 230 should be updated to ensure that "it’s working as intended”, but as noted, there was little discussion on the detail in today's session. The Judiciary Committee will analyze the same regulation on November 17th.
Given the lack of clear progress in the session, it's still too early to say what could happen to the open web if indeed Section 230 laws are changed.
If anything, evidence points to the fact that right-leaning publications and Pages actually get more reach via social networks than left-leaning publishers, despite the suggestions of restriction, so the broader push on reforming the law to protect Conservative speech seems misguided, and likely won't result in the outcome those calling for change expect.
But an updated Section 230 would have impacts. What exactly they might be, we won't know until some real proposals are put in place, but it could have wide-reaching impacts for how platforms moderate content, and the effort required to do so. And that could limit competition, making it more difficult for smaller players to get in.
Right now, the direction isn't clear, but the debate will continue on for some time yet.