Why Big Tech Fights for Section 230
What is Section 230 and why is it under attack?
This week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation put the Big Tech CEOs in the hot seat. Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai faced the Senate for intense questioning on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the “Section”) and whether it’s due for reform. But, the hearing quickly turned into a venting session with little focus on the Section. For hours, Republican senators attacked the CEOs not only about their platforms’ impact on the election and but also for censoring Trump. But what exactly is Section 230 and why is it under attack?
Section 230 is Big Tech’s liability shield.
The Section is important to the Big Tech Giants. Essentially, it protects any online platform from any and all illegal content found on its site. Illegal content includes but is not limited to child pornography, obscene material or speech that incites lawless action. Pretty much, the Section affects every US website that has a comments section or a messaging function. The Section significantly advanced the evolution of social media because of the level of immunity it grants. Since the Section was enacted, platforms did not need to meticulously surveil the content it hosted. The Section guarantees that platforms are not treated as “publishers” or “speakers” and are thus not presumed legally responsible. Without such immunity, social media would not be what it is today.
Removing immunity could have an adverse effect on privacy.
Many claim the Section is due for reform because it is responsible for misinformation today. The threat of misinformation is apparent now during a global pandemic, civil unrest and a decisive election year. And because platforms do not have rigorous censorship practices, spreaders of misinformation prosper. However, it is crucial that the Section stay intact. The Section both protects internet speech and guarantees privacy.
Without immunity, platforms are more likely to censor private conversations in effort to regulate illegal content. This could mean the end of encryption as we know it. Encryption is the process of converting plain text into code to preserve confidentiality. Apps such as Telegram and Signal, among others guarantee encryption. The growing rise of digital communication necessitates strong encryption. Because everyone has an expectation of privacy in messaging applications, encryption not only fosters trust but also increases app usage. The loss of the Section immunity threatens encryption because it will incentivize platforms to censor content and increase surveillance (by manual review or algorithm) of all communications.
Without Section 230 immunity, expect increased surveillance.
Ultimately, invasive surveillance will result if Congress removes Section 230 immunity. While the Senate tries to use Big Tech as a scapegoat, removing the Section is not a proper solution because it will undermine privacy rights that are perpetually under threat.