President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the annual defense spending bill unless Congress agrees to scrap liability protection for social media companies.
Trump said in a pair of tweets this week that unless Congress repeals a portion of the Communications Decency Act that protects online publishers from liability for content a user creates and posts to their sites he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The annual appropriations bill funds pay raises for troops, national security initiatives, new weapons systems, upgrades for military housing and other expenditures by the Department of Defense.
This year’s NDAA calls for $740.5 billion in military spending.
“If the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Members of Congress clapped back at Trump, saying the appropriations bill is not the place to take on social media companies.
“230 has nothing to do with the military,” chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, told The Hill. “I agree with his sentiments ... but you can’t do it in this bill. That’s not a part of the bill.” Inhofe reportedly said he conveyed this message to Trump.
What is Section 230 and why does Trump want it repealed? Here’s what we know now.
What is Section 230?
Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed by Congress in 1996.
It addresses a company’s liability for what a user of the site might post there.
Section 230 reads “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Companies that allow users to post comments on their sites are protected from liability for most of those comments because they are not considered publishers of that material.
For instance, if you are falsely accused of a crime by a newspaper, you could sue that newspaper for libel. If you are falsely accused of a crime in the comments section of an internet site such as Twitter, then you could sue the person who posted that tweet, but you could not sue Twitter for the false statement.
Part of the protection Section 230 provides includes allowing social media sites to moderate what appears on the site by removing offensive posts or those that violate the terms of agreement as long as the site is acting in “good faith.”
Section 230 does not offer protection from copyright violations or criminal acts.
Why does Trump want it repealed?
Trump has accused some social media sites of censoring conservatives by pausing their ability to post to their accounts or by limiting their reach on the platform.
When social media companies make those decisions, Trump claims, they become publishers and should lose the protection Section 230 provides.
Trump signed an executive order in May that called for limiting the legal protection that Section 230 offers.
Trump said several times during the election that “big tech” was trying to rig the presidential election.
In the order, Trump mentions the term “selective censorship,” something those in favor of repealing Section 230 have cited as proof that tech companies act as publishers.
The order calls for users to be directed to file complaints of bias with the Federal Trade Commission. In turn, the FCC would investigate the complaints to see if the platform’s “good faith” provision was violated and if it should have its liability protection repealed.
What about President-elect Joe Biden?
In January 2020, Biden proposed revoking Section 230 completely.
“The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms,” Biden said. “It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.”
What happens if it is repealed?
According to The Associated Press, there are two likely outcomes if Section 230 is repealed.
“Platforms might get more cautious, as Craigslist did following the 2018 passage of a sex-trafficking law that carved out an exception to Section 230 for material that ‘promotes or facilitates prostitution.’”
Or, “Facebook, Twitter and other platforms could abandon moderation altogether and let the lower common denominator prevail.”
What are members of Congress saying about repealing it?
For the most part, members of Congress do not want the debate over Section 230 tied up with the passage of the NDAA.
“For 59 straight years, the NDAA has passed because Members of Congress and presidents of both parties have set aside their own policy objectives and partisan preferences and put the needs of our military personnel and America’s security first. The time has come to do that again,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a joint statement.
Currently, neither the House nor the Senate version of the defense spending bill includes legislation concerning Section 230, according to Bloomberg.