Ditching Section 230 Would Make Free Speech Worse for Wear

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The digital fallout from the Capitol riots was considerable. We’ll likely be dealing with their effects for most of 2021. In the wake of the event, Americans of all stripes strongly condemned the events that transpired, loudly speaking out against the violence, intimidation, and property damage that occurred. The most notable fallout from the Capitol riots thus far has been social media sites suspending President Trump’s accounts on their platforms, citing concerns that his antagonistic rhetoric incited the day’s events. 

Naturally, these decisions raised anew the long-debated questions about content moderation, specifically the impact of Section 230 — a law that grants liability protection to websites for third party content. While many on the right are concerned social media has gone too far in its efforts to moderate content, many on the left argue they have not gone far enough. And vocal proponents on both sides are starting to offer their “solutions,” which are mainly propositions to eliminate or modify liability protections for digital platforms. 

Before chucking the baby out with the bathwater, however, we should all pause a moment and remember the critical balance Section 230 provides that enables us to chart a more reasonable path forward.

Following the Capitol riot, many progressives called for a swift and aggressive response from social media. They felt lax moderation enforcement allowed the rioters to plan and coordinate, and that social media’s tolerance of President Trump’s online demeanor and more aggressive posts, particularly those claiming election fraud, served to fan the flames. While several sites eventually removed Trump’s posts and suspended his account, many progressives felt these actions came too late and did not adequately address the issue at hand.

Not surprisingly, many on the right felt exactly the opposite way. Conservatives accused tech companies of being far too aggressive in their content moderation and cited tech’s ability to remove the President as evidence these companies have become inordinately powerful. 

Conservatives fear intentional censorship by businesses overwhelmingly run and staffed by people on the left. 

Both arguments — the left and the right’s — claim Section 230 is to blame. But solutions, including the reform and repeal of Section 230, proposed by both sides of the aisle, would strongly undermine the balance that makes the internet something of such importance. 

The left envisions a world where armies of content moderators take down anything and everything that could even be mistaken as dangerous or misleading, while the right prefers something akin to the Wild West where anything goes. Both lack a legal framework that gives us the best of the internet, while allowing us to get rid of the worst. 

Section 230, as it stands, creates space for an internet balanced between free expression and online safety. Reforming or repealing the law would greatly jeopardize that balance. 

If we were to follow progressive desires and encourage websites to remove too much content, websites would become far less useful, less dynamic, and duller — think no Wikipedia, no personalized search results, and no Joe Rogan. Online social change could disappear for fear of libel litigation, including causes like #MeToo. If social media sites could be sued for accusations and potentially defamatory things their users say, these sites likely would simply remove any posts of this nature not already adjudicated in a court of law. And because content moderation is neither cheap nor easy, the burden would fall heaviest on smaller, up-and-coming players who could lose their ability to get off the ground. 

That said, the right’s vision is no better. In taking a Wild West, anything-goes approach to moderation, the internet becomes less palatable for normal people who want to engage in a safe online environment. Free speech would actually lose writ large. As Daphne Keller, Platform Regulation Director at Stanford Cyber Policy Center pointed out, in allowing all speech protected by the First Amendment to remain online, many websites would essentially become “free speech mosh pits,” driving the average social media user away and resulting in less connection and online discussion.

Either way, progressive or conservative reform to Section 230 has the same end result — a worse internet for everyday Americans. We will either have an internet where only privileged voices and the largest businesses are free to speak or an internet where sites allow all content and are transformed into cesspools that rival today’s 4-chan.

This is why we need to protect Section 230. Section 230 provides the internet with a powerful tool for striking balance online and creating an experience everyone can be satisfied with, at least to some extent. Section 230 is not a cure-all that shields digital platforms from public scrutiny. Social media makes tough moderation decisions every day and it’s up to the public to hold them accountable. However, that cannot be solved legislatively. 

Businesses make policy decisions that the public and even politicians disagree with all the time. For social media, the blame does not and should not lie with Section 230. As it stands, the law empowers an internet that avoids radical extremes and dangerous content while enabling more free speech than anywhere else in the world. Without Section 230, we the users are left with a choice between two dystopian hellscapes: 1984 or Mad Max. It’s a bad choice, and one we shouldn’t have to make.

James Czerniawski is a Senior Contributor with Young Voices, and the Tech and Innovation Policy Analyst with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.

Trace Mitchell is Policy Counsel at NetChoice, a trade organization working to make the internet safe for free enterprise and free expression. Follow him on Twitter @WhatTheHayek.

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