On Section 230

Okay, so believe it or not, this post is not about Twitter and Facebook and the other social media companies banning Trump.  Well, it is kinda about that, but only tangentially.

As part of the brouhaha coming from those bans, a lot of articles and stories have been mentioning Section 230.  Heck, Trump himself has ranted about it for months, telling his followers that it should be removed because it causes/leads-to censorship.

Uhh…

Like everything else Trump rants about, that is just stupid.  Let’s backtrack a bit and look at what Section 230 actually does before people decide to assault the Capitol over it.

Section 230 was put in place in the 90’s as a “liability shield” for internet companies.  Although it was enacted in the day of AOL and CompuServe, it is applicable now to far more than just internet providers.  It applies to any company or site that hosts “content” on the internet.

In essence, it says that the site provider cannot be held liable for content on its site if — and only if — they have legitimate content moderation policies in place, and a team to enforce those policies.

Put simply, this blog is hosted on WordPress’s platform.  There is a pretty detailed Terms of Service document to which I had to agree before I could get the blog up and running.  Part of that document spells out the content that is subject to moderation, and the methods WordPress can and will use to enforce that moderation.

If I put up a blog post advocating, say, something violent or repugnant, and one of my readers went out and actually did that, the victims of the crime could sue the shit out of me personally, because of what I wrote.  They could not, however, sue WordPress if WordPress could show that their content policies, and their moderation team, were dealing with the issue.

If, on the other hand, WordPress had no content policies, or no moderation team, then Section 230 would not apply and they could — and would — get sued for every single controversial thing posted on their platform.

Now, let’s apply that to Trump and Twitter.

If you feel that banning Trump from Twitter is unreasonable censorship, then you should NOT be calling for the removal of Section 230 and the protections it provides.  Without those liability protections, the justifiable fear of lawsuits would cause companies to massively restrict the content they would be willing to allow on their platforms.

Actually, if you are worried about Trump’s Twitter ban, you should be fighting to strengthen Section 230.

You can justifiably argue that Twitter and Facebook acted as they did out of politics, but you have to be reasonable here and look at the other side as well — what Trump incited on January 6th could very well have real legal consequences for any internet platform, Twitter in this case, that allowed his rantings without adequate enforcement of content and moderation policies.  Those consequences could be far, far worse if he were to continue to use the same language in an effort to again incite “activity” on January 20th.

Banning Trump can be described as politics, yes, but it can also be described as a common-sense, conservative business decision to protect the company from possible legal action.

Now, the ban may turn out to be the stupidest thing the social media companies could do.  The folks upset about it have a certain amount of right on their side.  But if they — if you — want the freedom to express and read all kinds of viewpoints and opinions on the internet, then the internet companies do need the liability protection of Section 230.  Take away that protection and you create the fear not of governmental or criminal reprisal for content, but the far worse (to any reasonable CEO or CFO) fear of economic and civil reprisal for content.

I am not, in this post, trying to argue for or against the social media ban on Donald J Trump.  I have my own opinion on that, just as you have yours.  As much as I despise Trump, I can most definitely see both sides to the argument.

No, what I’m writing about is the foolish argument about the wrong thing!

The argument, unfortunately, has become this: “the tech companies need Section 230, and we don’t like the tech companies, so take it away!”  That is the best example of cutting off your nose to spite your face that I have seen in a very long time, and it frustrates the living hell out of me.

If you folks on the Trump side — not conservatives, mind you…conservatives are something very different from nationalist-populists — want to pick a fight with the tech companies, do it over something that something that will actually benefit you and your side!

Oh, and one last note — this is NOT a question of censorship in any way, shape or form. True censorship is the use of governmental power to quell or limit free speech. as big as they have become, neither Facebook nor Twitter is the government. They are private companies who have every legal and legitimate right to do business with whomever they choose.

If you believe, for instance, that a cake baker should be allowed to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding because of his personal and private religious beliefs, then you have no basis to argue that Twitter should be forced to do business with Donald Trump in spite of their beliefs and preferences otherwise.

If you don’t like the choices Facebook and Twitter, then don’t use them. Period. End of story. Welcome to the land of freedom and personal responsibility.

{Edit — okay, so I’ve had the question put to me already in a couple of texts. Just to put the issue to bed, and forestall more of the same question: I more-than despise Trump, I hold him in the utmost contempt…BUT I also think Twitter made a mistake with their total ban. I think Facebook did quite a bit better by suspending him only until after the inauguration. Also…I don’t use either platform. The only “social media” presence I have is this old-school little blog, so the whole argument is less visceral and more intellectual for me.}

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