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The Ongoing Attempts to Reform Section 230 and Its Impact on the Digital World

There have been several attempts to reform or repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. These attempts have come from both sides of the political aisle, albeit for different reasons.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump made multiple calls to repeal Section 230. On the other hand, Joe Biden, when he was a presidential candidate, have called for the revocation of Section 230 due to the perceived failure of social media platforms to combat harmful content, including hate speech and misinformation.

Several reform or repeal approaches have been introduced in Congress aimed at amending Section 230. These include:

– The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA): Signed into law in April 2018, these acts amended Section 230 to hold websites liable for knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting sex trafficking.

– The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act: Introduced in May 2019, this act proposed that Section 230 does not prevent the enforcement of state laws consistent with this section, relating to the exposure of children to harmful material.

– Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT Act): First introduced in March 2020, the EARN IT Act proposed to amend Section 230 to allow for lawsuits against technology companies if they do not take steps to prevent crimes against children.

– The Department of Justice (DOJ) reform proposal: In June 2020, the DOJ proposed a series of reforms to Section 230 to tackle issues such as illicit activity and anti-conservative bias.

– Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act: Proposed in June 2020, the PACT Act aimed to make significant changes to Section 230, including requiring platforms to publish acceptable use policies and provide detailed takedown notices.

– Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act: Introduced in September 2020, this bill aimed to modify Section 230 to change the criteria for when providers can remove or moderate user content.

The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act: Reintrouduced in Feb 2023, this act of Section 230 allows social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, online harassment, and discrimination on social media platforms. It “reaffirms that vital consumer safeguards and civil rights protections don’t end when activity moves online, preventing online providers from continuing to externalize the costs of their scale and mismanagement on the public”.

The impact of these reform attempts can be broadly categorized into several areas:

  1. Legal Landscape: The reform attempts have led to heightened debates and scrutiny over the legal protections currently afforded to internet platforms. These debates could result in changes to the law that could alter the responsibilities of these platforms when it comes to user-generated content.
  2. Platform Policies: In response to potential changes, many social media platforms and other online companies have proactively altered their content moderation policies to better manage the potential risks. This has led to more aggressive content policing by some platforms, which has in turn raised questions about censorship and bias.
  3. Free Speech: There’s been a significant public discourse on the balance between protecting free speech and controlling harmful or false information. Some argue that the current interpretation of Section 230 enables hate speech, misinformation, and other harmful content to proliferate. Others worry that without Section 230, platforms could over-moderate to avoid legal risks, potentially limiting free speech.
  4. Business Implications: Potential reforms might affect the business model of many internet companies, especially smaller ones. Larger companies may have the resources to deal with increased liability, but smaller companies might struggle, which could potentially limit innovation and competition in the industry.
  5. Political Impact: The debate over Section 230 has become highly politicized, which could have wide-ranging effects on future tech-related legislation. Some politicians view Section 230 reform as a way to curb perceived bias in content moderation, while others see it as a way to limit the spread of misinformation.
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