Digital rights advocates and sex workers are among those speaking out against GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's attempt to tie House-approved $2,000 coronavirus relief direct payments to repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which critics are condemning as an "outrageous attack on internet freedom."
"A full repeal of Section 230 would throw the internet into chaos."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
President Donald Trump supports the $2,000 checks but has also taken aim at the 26-word Section 230, which states that "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."
"Trump and his supporters have gotten it in their heads that repealing #Section230 will protect conservative speech online. (It won't.)," the advocacy group Free Press tweeted Wednesday. "Others are eager to hold tech companies accountable for their failures to stop disinformation and hate and see this as a pathway. (It won't.)."
Repealing the law "has potential impacts in every single piece of content you generate and could lead to massive censorship or pre-screening of content. So basically, the entirety of the internet as we know it," Free Press warned, while blasting lawmakers for using it as a pawn in the pandemic relief debate.
Section 230 is "the most important law protecting free speech online," Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior activist Elliot Harmon explained earlier this month. The law not only protects Big Tech companies from liability for what their users post, "it protects all of us," he wrote. "If you've ever forwarded an email, Section 230 protected you: if a court found that email defamatory, Section 230 would guarantee that you can't be held liable for it; only the author can."
As TechCrunch reported Wednesday:
Unfortunately, McConnell's move here is mostly a cynical one, to the detriment of Americans in financial turmoil. An outright repeal of Section 230 is a position without much, if any, support among Democrats. And while closely Trump-aligned Republicans have flirted with the idea of stripping online platforms of the legal shield altogether, some flavor of reform is what's been on the table and what's likely to get hashed out in 2021.
For lawmakers who understand the far-reaching implications of the law, reform rather than a straight-up repeal was always a more likely outcome. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that Section 230 gets repealed through this week's strange series of events, many of the websites, apps, and online services that people rely on would be thrown into chaos. Without Section 230's liability protections, websites from Yelp to Fox News would be legally responsible for any user-generated reviews and comments they host. If an end to comments sections doesn't sound so bad, imagine an internet without Amazon reviews, tweets, and many other byproducts of the social internet.
Critics of Trump and McConnell's recent attacks on Section 230 are imagining that world and warning what it could look like. The digital rights group Fight for the Future, which is circulating a related petition, tweeted Wednesday that "repealing 230 would be devastating for human rights, social movements, and marginalized people."
In a statement, the group's deputy director Evan Greer declared: "This is absurd. And dangerous. A full repeal of Section 230 would throw the internet into chaos. It would open the floodgates for massive internet censorship and online abuse. Even Mitch McConnell knows that. This seems to be a cynical play to use Section 230 as a 'poison pill' to make sure we don't get $2,000 stimulus checks that people desperately need in order to feed their children and avoid eviction in the middle of a pandemic."
For the last fucking time Section 230 is not a "special legal protection afforded to technology companies"
It applies to literally every website. Including the comments section of The Hill, for example. It also protects you from getting sued for retweeting or forwarding an email https://t.co/fG8OkInNdy
— Evan Greer (@evan_greer) December 29, 2020
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"Ironically, if Section 230 were to be repealed entirely, Donald Trump and many of his supporters would be among the first to be banned from social media, which would cease to exist in its current form," she noted. "Repealing 230 would also forever solidify the monopoly power of the largest tech companies like Facebook and Google, who will be the only ones with enough money and lawyers to navigate a world where they become liable for users' posts."
Greer urged lawmakers to "stop playing with people's lives, pass a clean Covid relief bill, and then get to work taking real action to rein in Big Tech abuses." She wasn't alone in pointing out that Trump and his supporters would likely feel the effects of repealing Section 230. NBC News reporter Ben Collins also noted it on Twitter:
In the extraordinarily unlikely world where Section 230 gets repealed, the most likely next step would be mass deletion of Q and anti-vaxx accounts due to legal liability, the very same people who are begging for it to be repealed because they don’t know what it is.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) December 30, 2020
Really, nobody should want this, but Donald Trump specifically should not want the repeal of Section 230.
His “rumors” about political opponents and voting machine companies become an enormous legal liability for any social network.
Instant nightmare for him and mostly him.
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) December 30, 2020
Sex workers who have faced the consequences of Congress amending Section 230 are also expressing concern about the impacts of its full repeal. In 2018, Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). As Common Dreams has reported, sex workers say SESTA/FOSTA has made them less safe—an anticipated impact that they warned federal legislators about before the package became law.
Last year, a small coalition of Democrats marked the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers by introducing a bill—which remains stuck in committee in both chambers of Congress—that would launch an investigation into how the 2018 legislation has harmed sex workers. Co-sponsor Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said at the time that "instead of preventing sex trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA made it harder for sex workers to access critical health and safety resources."
It's also made it more difficult for them to connect with clients, as The Hill reported Wednesday:
Gigi, a sex worker who had an account dedicated to sharing information about stripping and pole dancing with more than 3,000 followers taken down earlier this year for violating Instagram's nudity policy, said that she had recently been getting notifications blocking her from posting.
"Further rendering us invisible in the context of a pandemic when most work is online and we can't even promote our work online is actually evil in my opinion," she added.
Greer told The Hill that "it would be irresponsible and reckless for lawmakers to ignore the lessons learned from SESTA/FOSTA and rush into more changes to Section 230 before really coming to terms with just how much harm was done the last time they changed it."