Progressive groups warn Congress against Section 230 changes

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A coalition of over 70 progressive groups sent a letter to Congress Wednesday urging caution when approaching potential changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The law, which protects internet companies from liability for most content posted by third parties and allows them to do good-faith moderation, is facing sustained efforts aimed at reform or repeal for the first time since being enshrined in 1996.

In their letter to Congress and the Biden administration, the organizations argue that the law is fundamental to free expression and human rights on the internet.

They also caution against jumping to Section 230 reform as a response to the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, which was largely organized online.

“Gutting Section 230 would make it more difficult for web platforms to combat the type of dangerous rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol,” the groups, including Fight for the Future, Public Knowledge and UltraViolet, wrote. “And certain carve outs to the law could threaten human rights and silence movements for social and racial justice that are needed now more than ever.”

The letter points to the effects of the last attempt to reform Section 230, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA/SESTA), and its effect on sex workers.

The bill amended the law to make online platforms liable for third-party content promoting prostitution. Although it was advertised as a way to tackle sex trafficking, workers in the sex industry say that FOSTA/SESTA has made their work more dangerous while doing little to address that very real problem.

“The impacts of this law were immediate and destructive, limiting the accounts of sex workers and making it more difficult to find and help those who were being trafficked online,” the groups wrote, calling for a bill introduced by Democrats to study the effects of FOSTA/SESTA to be passed.

Reforming or repealing Section 230 has been floated by lawmakers as a way to reduce the power of the country’s biggest tech companies, especially social media platforms.

Other approaches, like antitrust enforcement or a federal data privacy law, may be more effective at reducing that undue influence, and Section 230 repeal could actually concentrate it more, the groups argued in their letter Wednesday.

“Repealing Section 230 would make it even harder for platforms to engage in good faith moderation of hateful speech and disinformation,” they wrote. “It could lead thousands of smaller companies and alternative platforms to be shut down, therefore crushing competition and making Big Tech even more powerful.”

Former President Trump signed an executive order targeting Section 230 last May after Twitter placed labels on a handful of his tweets spreading unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about mail-in voting.

However, the order was ultimately not acted on by the Federal Communications Commission, and with the new administration in power is almost certainly dead.

Lawmakers introduced a bevy of legislation tackling Section 230 last Congress.

The two bipartisan bills addressing Section 230 — the EARN IT and PACT acts — appear to have the most viability moving forward, especially given the influence of the lawmakers backing them.

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT), co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), would tie Section 230 protections to efforts to combat child sexual abuse material. It would also allow federal and state claims against online companies that host child exploitation content.

The bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, led by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would require greater transparency around platforms’ decisions to moderate their users’ content.

Tags Brian Schatz Communications Decency Act Donald Trump Internet John Thune Lindsey Graham Section 230
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