There are 26 English words and they are believed to have the power of a magical mantra. Like a magic spell, they are said to have unleashed the world-changing power of the Internet as we know it today. The sentence from “Section 230” of the US “Law of Decency in Communication” of 1996 reads: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or presenter of information provided by another content provider. ” (In German it’s not quite 26 words)
The awkwardly worded passage of the law, which should actually curb pornography on the Internet, means in plain language: Platforms such as Facebook or Youtube do not have to take responsibility for what their users publish. This is what distinguishes tech companies from media websites, for example, whose editors create their own contributions – on their own responsibility. Without this license, the advocates of Section 230 argue, Internet platforms would never have developed that only serve as water heaters for their users’ texts, images and videos. You would have been too scared of anger. Without section 230, there would be no Facebook, Google or Twitter.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg summed up the meaning on Wednesday before the US Congress: Without Section 230, platforms like his would probably censor more content to avoid legal trouble and invest in technologies with which people could express themselves. The trade committee of the US Senate had ordered the CEOs Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Alphabet / Google) and Jack Dorsey (Twitter) via video switch. The central question of the hearing was whether Section 230 encourages “bad behavior” by tech companies.
Republicans accuse platforms of censoring their posts
In times of political polarization in the USA and increasing resentment about defamation, propaganda, but also the deletion of posts in social media, Section 230 has become a political issue. Democrats and Republicans alike attack the rule with different arguments. While the Democrats want to make the platforms even more responsible for spreading hatred against minorities and Trumpesque lies, Republicans are accusing them of censoring right-wing posts.
Pichai protested against changes to the law: “We can only provide access to this breadth of information because of laws like Section 230.” He rejected the charge of political one-sidedness.
Several motions to change the law have been tabled in Congress. Republicans are trying to make the platforms “neutral”. Should Section 230 be completely overturned, the legal handling of content would be back to the status of 1996 – and at that time there was mainly uncertainty, courts decided without a comprehensible line on problem cases.
Twitter boss Dorsey refused to interfere and pointed out that the companies were already assuming responsibility: “I don’t think anyone in this room wants less freedom of expression or more abuse and harassment on the Internet.” In fact, the platforms have upgraded under pressure from politics. Initially, the platforms only filtered depictions of child abuse and copyrighted material, later propaganda from terrorist organizations was added. Debates over disinformation after the 2016 US election and racist “hate speech” – which is notoriously difficult to define – and insults led to even more investment in artificial intelligence. If they block posts or political agitators, the companies rely on their house rules, which they have tightened even further under pressure from politicians and users.
The bosses are certainly not in the mood for even more interventions in content. The high advertising revenues of companies are based on the fact that they sit back while billions of users publish and distribute articles. In this way, they can “scale” – that is, grow rapidly – without constantly having to hire new controllers in proportion to the number of users. The fact that, under pressure from politics, Zuckerberg now has to employ tens of thousands of people to check the content (which artificial intelligence pre-sorts for them) should be extremely inconvenient for him. Nevertheless, Zuckerberg was the only one of the three company directors to suggest that he could accept a reform of Section 230.
No president has made the most of social media like Donald Trump
Conservatives in particular imply that social media would use their power to silence the right-wing infosphere of US politics. The success of Trump, who uses his reach in social networks to spread lies and is not impressed by negative reporting in reputable media, contradicts the conservative narrative that one is deliberately censored by the platforms.
The Republican Senator Cruz is, alongside President Donald Trump, the loudest proponent of the thesis of the censorship of conservative voices. Shortly before the hearing, he intensified his campaign against the tech platforms. The platforms and their “billionaires” would influence the elections “as has never happened in our country’s history”. What exactly he meant by that is unclear. Trump and the Republicans themselves are suspected of trying to prevent as many Biden voters as possible from voting and of wanting to sabotage the counting of the postal vote, in which Biden is given good chances.
It is true that employees and bosses of tech companies from California tend to be left-wing liberal (a political orientation that obviously includes the conviction that you hardly have to pay taxes). The fact that the networks blocked right-wing accounts or restricted their reach may also be due to the simple fact that Trump and his supporters simply lie more brazenly than their political opponents.
In addition, Conservative MPs like Cruz did not understand the law or at least pretend to be. Because the law allows the platforms to intervene editorially in content, for example to delete insults.