A Path for American Muslims: What the Debate Over Section 230 Reveals

December 17, 2020



By: Adam Beddawi, Policy Analyst
December 17, 2020

W HEN TRUMP THREATENED TO VETO the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a 59 year rite-of-passage for a booming national security industrial complexhe chose a peculiar sticking point: section 230 of the

Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law passed as part of the Telecommunications Act that regulated online pornography. Section 230, however, effectively provides liability for internet services and users for content posted on the internet, save for content that violates criminal statutes or intellectual property claims. 

Both parties, and the tech platforms themselves, serve their own interests when they frame debate on section 230 around censorship and political speech. Section 230 is a large part of the modern digital economy. For one, social media platforms can collect large data stores based on the free-flow of user-generated content, while fulfilling their social responsibility by employing cheap labor to moderate content on the platform. Basically, large platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can continue to profit from vast amounts of user-generated content without fear of legal liability. 

By threatening to revoke section 230, Trump was responding to what he understands as a partisan slant in these platforms’ attempts to moderate content. The claim is largely specious, as each platform has a First Amendment right to curate their sights. Revoking section 230 outright would also do little to break-up the moligopolies of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Rather, it would increase start-up costs for competitors and allow the wealthiest interest groups to wield the greatest regulatory influence over political speech. 

In a rare bit of bipartisanship, Congress called the President’s bluff by offering the NDAA veto-proof majorities of ‘yes’ votes in both the House and Senate. This reflects the unique strength of the national security industry, but it should not distract from the significant opposition to section 230. In addition to Trump’s stance, President-elect Joe Biden has called for the repeal of Section 230. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) have both threatened the same. Both parties approach section 230 from the standpoint of its inability to sufficiently censor free speech. Democrats think the measure lets tech companies off of the hook for hate speech on their platforms, while Republicans think it allows them to suppress conservative voices. 

If both parties get their wish, then repeal of section 230 would open up new space for legal advocates, scholars, and interest groups to develop and establish new standards for tech censorship.

However, it would undercut the power that Silicon Valley has in this broader dynamic; as both the arbiters, enforcers, and, ultimately, distributors, of their platforms’ user-generated content. 

The Trump White House has worked with Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) to push reforms form Silicon Valley, which presses upon a central fault-line in the broader American political economy: the relationship of both parties to the burgeoning tech giants. The Democratic Party has the most significant connections with this growing political power bloc in control of this generation’s ‘oil’ reserves — data, the foundation of our speculative, finance-based economy. 

Silicon Valley and the aforementioned national security industrial complex “interact to develop, manage, and scale ‘fourth industrial revolution technologies’.” The U.S. government outsources many of their security operations to private, app-based companies who, with the help of lax regulations on data privacy and collection, construct data-driven user profiles that can predict consumer patterns, optimize product updates, and micro-target marketing campaigns. For the government, these profiles streamline security operations by helping them construct risk assessment methodologies with which to assess human behavior as security threats. 

The debate over Section 230 is a distraction from the foundations of this data collection complex. Claims of partisan censorship pettifog the debate, which should be held over democratic control and oversight over what becomes of user-generated data. It comes as no surprise that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg described the recent challenge from Senate Republicans as “existential”. Without this liability shield, Facebook would have to rethink its entire supply chain, given that the primary service it renders are its advanced data caches. 

President Trump has already indicated his intention to veto the NDAA over the failure to repeal section 230. This suggests that the Trump administration considers Silicon Valley a greater enemy than they consider the military-industrial complex a friend. For Trump, taking this swipe at the tech sector is more pressing than seeding funds to weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. This is a significant political faultline, one which must be engaged as such. American Muslims stand to be impacted by regulations over online hate speech as well as data collection practices. What matters is our ability to convene political coalitions broad enough to actually break through the contemporary impasse. We can do this over privacy rights far more effectively than we can over censorship claims. 

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