Trump demand to ax Section 230 could alter Americans' online lives

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President Trump’s demand for Congress to eliminate Big Tech’s legal liability protection would not only punish companies such as Twitter and Facebook but also fundamentally alter Americans’ online life.

Exposure to lawsuits would prompt social media to crack down on a wider swath of content, websites such as Wikipedia would no longer rely on everyone’s input, and small businesses could face retribution for reviews and comments that visitors post on their websites.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales so fears how eliminating the protection could undo his website that he is pleading with anyone who will listen to save the protection, commonly referred to as Section 230, and his website by extension.

“Are you a grassroots conservative? You depend critically on section 230 to make grassroots possible,” Mr. Wales tweeted. “Are you liberal? Leftist? Communist? Religious? Section 230 is for you.

“Do you love my work? Do you believe in a kind and thoughtful fact-based dialog as the most wonderful thing about being human? Then fight for Section 230. It matters. A lot.”

Mr. Trump and his supporters want the legal protection stripped from companies such as Twitter and Facebook so that they can swing back at social media platforms that they believe censor or diminish conservative speech online.

But removing the protection contained in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would give Twitter and Facebook greater latitude to enforce broader restrictions because failing to do so could result in heavy fines and expensive legal disputes.

Eliminating the legal protection would make Twitter liable for all of the content in users’ tweets, make Facebook liable for all the content across its various platforms including Instagram, and make Wikipedia liable for whatever edits users make and the content they post.

The biggest tech companies can afford to lawyer up against the ensuing onslaught of complaints in a manner that their smaller competitors cannot, and they would move quickly to change the boundaries of what is acceptable to publish online.

While some Americans have grown tired of alarmism about regulating the Internet, U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor of cybersecurity law Jeff Kosseff is warning Americans that undoing Section 230 would be a point of no return.

“Seeing some takes along the lines of: ‘fine, repeal Section 230 and see what happens, and if it’s really bad, Congress can fix it later.’ I don’t think that is really possible, because platforms will need to revamp their operations pretty quickly to adjust to the new legal rules,” Mr. Kosseff tweeted.

Mr. Kosseff, author of a history of Section 230 titled, “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” tweeted that regardless of the intent of those aiming to scrap the legal liability, the platforms’ reactions would restrict more controversial user content.

Bipartisan appetite for altering the legal protection is strong in Washington, but an outright repeal of the legal protection through end-of-year brinksmanship has many opponents.

Mr. Trump said eliminating Section 230 is a national security issue in vetoing a major defense policy bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, then linked repealing the provision to $2,000 coronavirus relief checks for Americans.

Rank-and-file Republicans want a more deliberative approach.

“I think we need to address 230, but I just think this is not the right way to do it,” said Sen. Jon Cornyn, Texas Republican, about linking it to the stimulus payments. “I think we need to take it up to the Judiciary Committee. It’s a complex topic. So, I am in favor of doing something, but not this week, not on this bill.”

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