“I’m generally supportive of the Section 230, because without it you don’t have the Internet,” Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) told WIRED. “Sen. Hawley’s bill—I think the concern about that is, well who’s going to be able to judge whether a company is or isn’t showing bias? Then all the sudden take away that 230 protection—I don’t know, I’ve got my doubts on that one.”
For Democrats, there are no doubts.
“I have to say, I have not seen evidence of political bias,” Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, told WIRED. “I think the bias they [tech companies] have is they want to make as much money as possible.”
That’s not to say Warner is opposed to changes to Section 230, but he urges caution. “The idea that this is simply a totally unregulated square is simply not accurate, because we already have put in certain regulations,” Warner said, and added that the issue needs more debate.
For years, the very business models of platforms like Facebook and YouTube have come under fire for prioritizing whatever grabbed their users’ attention, often leading to feeds full of content that shocks or stokes outrage or divides. And Section 230 has enabled those business models, by shielding companies from responsibility for their users’ behavior at its most extreme. Just last month, an appeals court used the provision to rule that Facebook couldn’t be sued for providing a platform for terrorists, throwing out a lawsuit from the families of American citizens killed in Hamas attacks.
But in terms of solutions, Section 230 still might not be the right lever to pull.
“I think there definitely is a big problem with hate speech and all sorts of absolutely vile content online,” Kosseff, the author, says. “The question is how do changes to Section 230 address that.”
In 22 years, there’s only been one real update to Section 230. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or Fosta-Sesta, was signed into law last year, removing Section 230 immunity for services that “promote and facilitate prostitution.” The controversial amendment led to broad self-censorship by many sites, and some sex workers say the fallout has made their lives more dangerous, not less.
When Congress returns from recess in September, all signs point to lawmakers taking up the Section 230 debate where they left off. But gutting Section 230 could have other unintended effects, some experts fear. As distasteful as many parts of the web may be, they say, policing speech that is, after all, protected by the First Amendment could blow up in lawmakers’ faces.
“Maybe the internet companies could have been better at foreseeing where the problems would arise, but I think they’re quickly realizing they don’t have the right policy yet and they’re going to keep working towards it,” Eric Goldman, a Section 230 expert at the Santa Clara University School of Law, told WIRED. “And that’s the beauty of Section 230.”
Content moderation is hard to get right, and examples of companies getting it wrong abound. Goldman contends the statute is what gives tech firms the power and freedom to explore what works and what doesn’t.
“Section 230 allows the internet companies to make those decisions confidently without fearing their liability,” Goldman said. “The basis of those decisions are, ‘What’s in the best interest of my audience? What can I do to facilitate my audience’s needs?’ So Section 230 is—in that part—is unquestionably a part of the solution.”