Online speech shield under fire as Trump Facebook ban stays
WASHINGTON (AP) — Lurking beneath Facebook’s decision on whether to continue Donald Trump’s suspension from its platform is a far more complex and consequential question: Do the protections carved out for companies when the internet was in its infancy 25 years ago make sense when some of them have become global powerhouses with almost unlimited reach?
The companies have provided a powerful megaphone for Trump, other world leaders and billions of users to air their grievances, even ones that are false or damaging to someone’s reputation, knowing that the platforms themselves were shielded from liability for content posted by users.
Now that shield is getting a critical look in the current climate of hostility toward Big Tech and the social environment of political polarization, hate speech and violence against minorities.The debate is starting to take root in Congress, and the action this week by Facebook’s quasi-independent oversight board upholding the company’s suspension of Trump’s accounts could add momentum to that legislative effort.
Under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, digital platform companies have legal protection both for content they carry and for removing postings they deem offensive. The shelter from lawsuits and prosecution applies to social media posts, uploaded videos, user reviews of restaurants or doctors, classified ads — or the doxing underworld of thousands of websites that profit from false and defamatory information on individuals.
Section 230 of the law, which outlines the shield, was enacted when many of the most powerful social media companies didn’t even exist. It allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the behemoths they are today.
Republicans accuse the social media platforms of suppressing conservative voices and giving a stage to foreign leaders branded as dictators, while Trump is barred. Democrats and civil rights groups decry the digital presence of far-right extremists and pin blame on the platforms for disseminating hate speech and stoking extremist violence.
“For too long, social media platforms have hidden behind Section 230 protections to censor content that deviates from their beliefs,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, has said.
On this, Trump and President Joe Biden apparently agree. Trump, while president, called for the repeal of Section 230, branding it “a serious threat to our national security and election integrity.” Biden said during his campaign that it “immediately should be revoked,” though he hasn’t spoken about the issue at length as president.