US President once more calls for Section 230 reform

Joe Biden, the US President, has written an opinion piece calling for broad political support for a crusade against Big Tech.

Published in the WSJ, and presumably ghost-written, the piece is headlined ‘Republicans and Democrats, Unite Against Big Tech Abuses’. “I’m concerned about how some in the industry collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt our economy’s playing field, violate the civil rights of women and minorities, and even put our children at risk,” it starts.

In other words, Biden thinks big tech has too much power, which he presumably thinks should instead be in the hands of the government. As the opening sentence indicates, he wants to impose the will of the state on Big Tech in three main ways: data privacy, content moderation, and competition. The first is easily done through better law and regulation, and the latter is a matter for competition authorities, which have been on the case for some time.

The content moderation part is the most vague, subjective and contentious, coming as it does on the back of revelations that the US state has long been secretly applying censorship pressure to social media companies. Perhaps Biden’s administration has realised now is the time to make its censorship demands more overt and, inevitably, is using claimed concern for the vulnerable and other ‘protected groups’ to frame that pressure.

“…we must fundamentally reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from legal responsibility for content posted on their sites,” Biden goes on to write. “We also need far more transparency about the algorithms Big Tech is using…”

This bit has some merit. Section 230 is the most legitimate mechanism for the US government to influence the content moderation policies of social media companies, since it is part of a law. We have long argued that Section 230 protections be made conditional on internet companies restricting their censorship to illegal content.

But that’s almost certainly not what Biden has in mind and it seems likely that the US state simply wants to formalise the control over online content it has already been exerting illicitly. Furthermore, the whole piece is just a reheat of what was derived from a White House ‘listening session’ a few months ago. The only difference is that the Democrats no longer control the House of Representatives, hence the sudden call for bipartisan cooperation.

Using claims of championing the downtrodden as a Trojan Horse for a much broader power grab could be a technique Biden has learned from the UK. Our Online Safety Bill has struggled to proceed precisely because is bundles broad state censorship powers with much needed measures to protect the most vulnerable and, even now, some UK MPs don’t think it goes far enough.

Biden chose not to offer any specifics on how he would reform Section 230 if he receives the support he needs, but that doesn’t really matter since the totally adversarial nature of US politics means that will never happen anyway. Instead the Republicans have already indicated they want to attack Big Tech from another direction, using some of the revelations from the Twitter Files as a stick to beat their political opponents with. Fun!


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