Joe Biden’s threat to revoke liability protections for social media companies in the name of combating “fake news” should concern us all.
In an interview with the New York Times, the 2020 front-runner endorsed the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which ensures that users and not the platform itself are legally responsible for what they post on social media websites.
Akin to ensuring that telecommunications companies aren’t held responsible for the content of phone conversations, Section 230 is a commonsense policy that allows for free discourse on the internet, subject to standards imposed by individual online platforms. Ironically, Biden’s stance echoes conservative politicians such as Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who have also called for Section 230’s repeal. In their case, the two Republicans are looking to punish companies such as Facebook for what they perceive as censorship of conservatives.
While liberal critics such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi describe the law as a “gift” to Big Tech companies, the opposite is true. Repealing Section 230 would also affect smaller platforms and independent websites, especially those allowing comments on articles. Unlike Facebook or Google, these companies typically don’t have the necessary resources to moderate or fact-check everything their users post.
Additionally, unlike the social media giants, most smaller companies don’t have the legal resources to withstand costly, protracted litigation that could drive them bankrupt even if they’re legally in the right. It’s strange, then, for critics to complain about the disproportionate influence that platforms such as Facebook have on public discourse while simultaneously advocating a legislative change that will further entrench their monopoly.
Stricter content moderation requirements and less competition among platforms would also severely hurt users and consumers.
Companies, especially startups lacking brand recognition, are already at the mercy of a saturated digital advertising market dominated by Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If platforms are forced to further crack down on the advertisements they allow, they’ll end up favoring well-established players who already hold large market shares while heavily scrutinizing lesser-known rivals or upstarts.
Under the status quo, companies and users are already legally liable for posts and claims they make on these platforms. Repealing Section 230 would inadvertently punish small businesses reliant on digital services.
Similarly, rather than reducing the fake news politicians such as Biden claim to be targeting, repealing Section 230 would likely result in a less-informed public with fewer spaces to engage in free public debate, only making the problem worse.
Regardless of how harshly politicians may want to police social media, the responsibility for discerning facts from fiction ultimately lies with readers, who are exposed to more information from a variety of sources in the digital age than ever before. Biden’s plan to crack down on social media platforms only insults our collective intelligence and plays into the very hands of the dominant tech giants he decries.
Satya Marar is a D.C.-based policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.