Preserve Section 230, Watchdogs Urge Biden

Dozens of civil rights groups and other watchdogs are urging the new administration to avoid repealing or weakening Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 25-year-old media law that protects web companies from lawsuits over material posted by users.

“Section 230 is a foundational law for free expression and human rights when it comes to digital speech,” groups including PEN America, Public Knowledge and the Wikimedia Foundation write in a letter addressed to the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. “It makes it possible for websites and online forums to host the opinions, photos, videos, memes, and creativity of ordinary people, rather than just content that is backed by corporations.”

The law broadly immunizes web publishers from liability for users' posts, including ones that are defamatory. (There are some exceptions to that immunity, including for content that infringes intellectual property rights, violates federal criminal laws, or violates laws against sex trafficking.)

Section 230 also protects websites from lawsuits over their content moderation efforts -- including decisions to suppress speech that is legal, but that violates a site's terms of service. While the First Amendment also protects content-moderation decisions, Section 230 can provide web companies with an easier path to victory in lawsuits over those decisions.

The law has come under increasing scrutiny in the last year, with both Democrats and Republicans calling for changes.

On Tuesday, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Biden's nominee for Commerce Secretary, told lawmakers she thinks the law should be “reformed.” 

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly urged lawmakers to repeal the measure, while President Joe Biden previously called for its revocation. 

Public Knowledge and the other watchdogs to sign Wednesday's letter say broad revisions to Section 230 “could disproportionately harm and silence marginalized people.”

“For example,” the letter states, “social media platforms would be unlikely to host viral videos of police violence that have spurred nationwide uprisings for racial justice if they faced constant litigation from law enforcement for doing so.”

The groups add: “Because Section 230 protects platforms’ decisions to remove objectionable content, the law played a role in enabling the removal of Donald Trump from platforms, who could act without fear of excessive litigation.”

The organizations say that while they are concerned by tech companies' practices -- including targeting practices that rely on data about users -- Congress should address those concerns by passing privacy and civil rights laws, and enforcing antitrust laws.

“Surveillance-based business models are pervasive and an attack on human rights,” the groups write. “But claims that Section 230 immunizes tech companies that break the law, or disincentivizes them from removing illegal or policy-violating content, are false.”

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