Calling it a “serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity,” President Trump today tweeted that he would veto the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 – which funds the Department of Defense – unless the act includes a rider repealing 47 U.S.C. § 230.
Commonly known as “Section 230,” this is the little bit in federal law that protects tech companies from legal liability for the things their users post. Other countries, notably Germany, do not have this same rule; German law requires social media sites purge Nazi imagery and police content for Nazi or Neo-Nazi ideology.
Without Section 230, Twitter might have suspended Trump’s accounts when he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” (5 U.S. Code § 7313) or when he said that Joe Scarborough was responsible for the death of Lori Klausutis (Florida §§ 836.01-836.11). Twitter actually specifically cited Section 230 as a reason why it was not culpable in the case of the Klausutis tweets, and without that protection it likely would have removed the tweets if not Trump’s account entirely.
Why, exactly, Trump is seeking the elimination of Section 230 is unclear, but it might be because he mistakenly believes it allows social media sites to remove content they disagree with. Trump has complained that social media companies are biased against conservative voices and that they use their policies to silence conservatives and amplify liberal and leftist (Trump does not distinguish between liberalism and leftism, which are distinct ideologies) voices. But repealing Section 230 would actually make it even harder for conservatives to flourish on platforms like YouTube, where creators like Carlos Maza have long complained that the company doesn’t face repercussions for hosting dangerous content.
Before you think that maybe Trump is accidentally right and removing Section 230 would make the internet a beautiful hate-free space, it’s worth remembering that legal liability can work both ways. Alt-right groups have gotten good at manipulating both content algorithms and reporting systems. Many states have strict anti-pornography laws that could make life, somehow, even harder for sex workers on platforms like Instagram or Twitter if those companies could face criminal liability. Well-meaning users on Facebook misidentified police involved in Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year and, without Section 230, Facebook might simply remove any content related to protests in progress, making organizing those events far harder.
Section 230 is flawed but an essential part of the Internet and Trump’s insistence that it be struck down – at the expense of paying the troops he claims to love – is yet more proof that he has absolutely no idea how the law works, even when it benefits him.