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Social justice groups warn Biden against throwing out Section 230

‘Section 230 is a foundational law for free expression and human rights’

US-POLITICS-HEALTH-BIDEN Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

A group of 75 activist groups and nonprofits have urged against sweeping changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, warning that it could silence marginalized communities while making online moderation harder.

“Section 230 is a foundational law for free expression and human rights when it comes to digital speech,” the letter says. The law protects websites and apps from being sued over user-generated content — making it safer to operate social networks, comment sections, or hosting services. “Overly broad changes to Section 230 could disproportionately harm and silence marginalized people, whose voices have been historically ignored by mainstream press outlets.”

The letter is signed by a variety of groups supporting racial justice, sex workers’ rights, and free speech online — including the Wikimedia Foundation, Fight for the Future, and the Sex Workers Outreach Project. It’s addressed to Congress and the administration of President Joe Biden, both of which have shown an appetite for changing Section 230.

To demonstrate the potential harm of major changes, the authors point to FOSTA-SESTA, a 2018 rule that removed legal protections for hosting prostitution-related content. “The impacts of this law were immediate and destructive, limiting the accounts of sex workers and making it more difficult to find and help those who were being trafficked online,” they write. They’re calling to pass a 2019 proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who called for a study of how the law impacted sex workers. At least one independent survey, performed by the signatory Hacking//Hustling, found a negative effect on many participants’ safety and financial stability.

The letter also notes that Section 230 lets companies remove objectionable posts without fear of lawsuits from disgruntled users. Amazon, for instance, invoked it to defend suspending the social network Parler over violent threats. “Congress should act to address the harms of Big Tech through meaningful legislative action on data privacy, civil rights and others fronts, and enforcement of existing antitrust laws. But uncareful efforts to poke holes in Section 230 could result in the exact opposite outcome,” write the authors.

The Trump administration pushed to rewrite Section 230, aiming to discourage social media sites from removing or fact-checking former President Donald Trump’s posts as well as other conservative content. Several Republican lawmakers backed similar changes. The incoming Biden administration also appears critical of Section 230, but on opposite grounds since Biden has claimed the law allows companies like Facebook to host false information. (The First Amendment protects many false statements.) Gina Raimondo, Biden’s nominee for Commerce Department secretary, expressed support yesterday for changing the law.