After a tumultuous year full of uncertainty and angst, the start of the new year, unfortunately, followed suit. Due to last week’s raid of the Capitol Building, resulting in Donald Trump’s removal from various social media apps, the debate over the understanding of free speech is in full swing. Some critics say Trump incited violence and rightfully deserved to be permanently banned on Twitter. Others defend the President’s speech and are calling to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This week’s post will define Section 230 and its role in the free speech debate.
To note, the purpose of creating the Communications Decency Act was to enact provisions to free speech online. Because Internet users opposed these restrictions, Section 230 was enacted in 1996 (Electronic Frontier Foundation). According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “Section 230 provides websites, including social media companies, that host or moderate content generated by others with immunity from liability.” In other words, these companies do not bear the responsibility for its consumers’ speech. Section 230 is inapplicable to Federal Criminal Law and Intellectual Property Claims. Since Twitter is a private company, this legally legitimizes its decision to permanently suspend the President’s account, as he allegedly spread misinformation about the election according to its Terms & Conditions. However, this turn of events has left moderates, conservatives, and republicans feeling silenced.
Trump’s Twitter ban was the catalyst for the removal of Parler (a social media platform, which garnered a primarily conservative following, that does not monitor speech) from Apple and Amazon app stores. It begs the question, is Section 230 relevant to free speech?
The First Amendment “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition,” (Cornell Law School). Congress is prohibited from making laws which limit an individual’s First Amendment right, whether it is exercised in public physical space or on the internet. From the looks of Trump’s removal from Twitter, it is understandable why conservatives would be upset. The concept of a social media corporation eradicating the leader of the free world’s personal account is shocking, and shows just how much power these social media apps have over what their viewers are allowed to see. For many, these actions by Twitter and Facebook add even more salt to the wounds of our political divide created this past year. At face value, it makes sense why moderate and right-leaning voters would want to repeal Section 230. However, revoking Section 230 is much more threatening to the First Amendment than one might think (USA Today).
If Section 230 was abrogated, online businesses would monitor speech on a more frequent basis. Websites would become liable for every individual social media post, photo, blog, comment, and video a person publishes. Accommodating user-created content would be a precarious endeavor because these companies could be sued for every contentious post, which is unrealistic considering these websites have accumulated millions of users worldwide. If social media companies and those alike embodied an editorial role towards user-created content, it would end real-time communication, limit expression, tarnish social media providers’ reputations, and even cause them to shut down due to endless litigation. In the event Section 230 is repealed and edited, Congress must be cautious of its constitutional duty to not implement laws that limit the freedoms of American citizens and, unintentionally, chill protected speech.
Section 230 may protect a business’ right to negate liability for its users’ posts, but it does not protect a company from antitrust lawsuits. Parler sued Amazon in response to its removal from Amazon Web Services, an auxiliary provider of on-demand APIs and cloud-computing platforms (Reuters). Amazon claims Parler’s failure to monitor speech had a large role in planning the siege of the Capitol Building. Although it removed most of the troublesome posts, Parler responded to this by accusing Amazon of breaching its contract by forcing the social media app to shut down. Parler was warned about Amazon’s intolerance to offensive speech, yet Parler defended their Users’ speech that does not engender premeditated action as protected under the First Amendment. As this is an ongoing case, the outcome of the lawsuit will not be decided for a long time to come.
Ultimately, Section 230 is arguably the most integral component of the free speech debate considering the recent events of Trump’s Twitter ban and Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon. Free speech within the realm of the internet is a very different arena compared to speech in public physical spaces. As unfortunate as the Capitol Building raid was, it brought to light important nuances of the First Amendment as it relates to the internet.