Congress has introduced dozens of bills to reform Section 230, from modifying its protections to adding exclusions, to removing the law altogether. If you’ve heard the term Section 230, but don’t understand what it means, I have created a series of posts and YouTube videos to explain Section 230 in simple terms.
I have also compiled a list of every Section 230 bill in Congress. I’ve written a brief explanation of each one to help you understand the changes these bills would make to Section 230.
What is Section 230?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is one of the most important provisions protecting free speech on the internet. It’s also a controversial and widely misunderstood law that prevents websites like Facebook and Twitter from being sued for content that users post on their platforms.
With so much debate over the interpretation of Section 230, this law has become a massive target for lawmakers looking to change how social media and internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are regulated. Congress has introduced a number of bills aimed to repeal or reform Section 230 I will briefly explain all of them.
Section 230 Reform – House Bills
Sponsor Scott DesJarlais (R-TN)
This bill eliminates the legal immunity for “Good Samaritan” Blocking and Screening of Offensive Material and replaces it with Blocking And Screening Of Lawful And Constitutional Material. It also changes the law so that it would now be illegal for a platform “take action to restrict a user’s material that is protected under the Constitution or federal, state, or local law.
If a platform restricts users from posting “material that is protected under the Constitution”. Users will be able to sue the platform for up to $50,000 if their “constitutionally protected” free speech is removed by the platform.
Sponsor Ted Bud (R-NC)
This bill targets big tech by adding a new requirement for “edge providers” to Section 230. It defines edge providers as any content provider that has more than $1.5 billion in global revenue and more than 30 million monthly users in the U.S. or 300 million worldwide.
It requires any edge provider to maintain written terms of service, creating a contract between the user and the provider, in order to qualify for protection under 230. If the provider is “intentionally selective” with enforcement of this contract or breaches it, they can be sued in federal or state court for $5,000 or the actual cost of damages.
Sponsor Gregory, Steube (R-FL)
The intention of this bill is to protect minors from illegal, obscene, and sexually exploitative content. It carves out a number of exceptions to the current 230 protections. Platforms would not be eligible for Section 230 immunity if they allow or facilitate content that is illegal, explicit contact between an adult and a minor, or any content that is exploitive, indecent, obscene or harmful to minors. If an interactive computer service facilitates any of these exceptions, it will lose its protection under Section 230 for a period of one year.
It also adds an exception for stifling free speech. If a platform is dominant in its market and makes a content moderation decision that isn’t “reasonably consistent with the First Amendment” the publisher can be sued for up to $500,000.
Sponsor Louie Gohmert (R-TX)
This bill would repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Sponsor Jim Banks (R-IN)
Stop Shielding Culpable Platforms Act essentially eliminates the liability provisions that Section 230 was written to protect. The authors of the bill say that Section 230 “was enacted to ensure that third parties would not be held liable as the publisher of another entity’s speech, not to allow online platforms to knowingly distribute unlawful materials.” This bill maintains Section 230 immunity for publishing third-party speech but, allows online platforms to be sued for distributing illegal content.
Sponsor Tom Malinowski (D-NJ)
The authors of this bill want to “hold large social media platforms accountable” for violence that is occurring offline. This bill would limit an interactive computer service’s immunity if it uses an algorithm to “rank, order, promote, recommend, or amplify” content that promotes civil rights violations or acts of terrorism.
It provides exclusions for smaller websites that have 10,000,000 or fewer unique monthly visitors, as well as hosting companies, domain registers, content delivery networks, caching, data storage, and cybersecurity companies.
Sponsor Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
This bill would require social media platforms to provide clear, transparent terms of service spelling out their policies for payment methods, content ownership, content shared with third parties, disclaimers, as well as a description of what content and behavior is prohibited, when a user’s content may be removed, how they will be notified when content is removed, and how users can appeal moderation decisions.
In addition to this, the bill would require companies to create a consumer protection program and appoint a consumer protection officer. Larger companies with $250,000 in revenue or 10,000 monthly users would be required to publicly file a report with the FTC.
Sponsor Yvette Clarke (D-NY)
The bill’s author seeks to address what she sees as harmful discriminatory advertising practices. The bill would remove liability protection from interactive service providers that publish third-party targeted ads that discriminate against protected classes or statuses.
Sponsor Jim Jordan (R-OH)
This bill modifies section 230 to require that interactive computer service providers have publicly available terms that clearly explain the website’s moderation practices. It also requires companies to notify users about violations of those terms. Additionally, the company must provide timely notices if a user violates their terms of service, explaining with factual details why the content violated the terms of service.
However, this bill allows interactive computer service providers to withhold notifications in certain circumstances, such as if law enforcement asks that the user not be notified, the material is considered criminal or terroristic, or if a notification would pose harm to others.
Sponsor Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ)
This bill adds an exclusion to Section 230 limiting a social media platform’s liability protection if its algorithm provides personalized recommendations that cause physical or emotional harm. This exception only applies to larger websites that receive more than 5 million visitors a month, use an algorithm, and knowingly contribute to “physical or severe emotional” injury.
Sponsor Paul Goser (R-AZ)
This bill would change the wording of Section 230 from “offensive material” to “unlawful or objectionable material”. It would basically remove the broad liability protections in Section 230 and only provide immunity to platforms when removing content that is illegal.
Section 230 Reform – Senate Bills
Sponsor Joe Manchin (D-WV)
The See Something, Say Something Online Act essentially requires online social media platforms to scan their users’ content for suspicious activity. If they see something suspicious, such as violent crime, acts of terrorism, or serious drug offenses, they would be required by law to report it to the Department of Justice. If they fail to do so, they could be held liable for the content that was posted.
S.2228 – Disincentivizing Internet Service Censorship of Online Users and Restrictions on Speech and Expression Act (DISCOURSE Act)
Sponsor Marco Rubio (R-FL)
This bill would radically change the provisions granted to interactive computer services under Section 230. It would remove liability protection from any dominant social media platform that:
- Promotes, suppresses, or demonetizes content based on a viewpoint
- uses an algorithm to amplify targeted content to users (who didn’t search for the content)
- solicits, comments or funds the content.
They will also lose Section 230 protections if they fail to notify users of parental control options.
Sponsor Steve Daines (R-MT)
The main purpose of this bill is to require online platforms that display advertising, to provide equal opportunities to qualified candidates. This would include charging candidates equal rates and not censoring political advertisements. In addition, it would require platforms to maintain a publicly available record of any paid political advertising.
The bill also introduces a “bad faith” exception if the interactive computer service restricts material “on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or political affiliation or speech.”
Sponsor Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
The author of this bill cites numerous references to the dangerous “misinformation” that proliferated the internet during the Covid pandemic. This bill would allow interactive service providers to be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content if their algorithm promotes or amplifies health misinformation during a publicly declared health emergency. Section 230 liability protection will be extended to the interactive computer service if the algorithm uses a “neutral mechanism” for promoting content, such as displaying the content chronologically.
Sponsor Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
As the name states, this bill would repeal Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934
Section 230 Bills in the House and Senate
“Like Big Tobacco before it, Big Tech pushes products it knows are harmful,” a spokesperson for Senator Hawley said. This bill’s purpose is to protect teens from harmful content they view on social media. It allows an individual under the age of 16 who suffers “bodily injury or harm to mental health” from their use of social media companies to file a civil action against the company. The company would have to provide evidence that they took actions to ensure that users of their website were 16 years or older.
This bill would remove Section 230 immunity from platforms that facilitate illegal gun sales. It would make the online platform liable for any illegal gun sales that occur on their platform, including providing instructions on how to produce 3-D guns.
Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act or the SAFE TECH Act (SAFE TECH Act)
This bill would radically change the protections interactive computer services currently have under Section 230. It would add several exceptions to the law that would remove Section 230 protection from cases that involve paid advertisements, civil rights laws, antitrust laws, stalking, harassment, intimidation, human rights, and wrongful death.
It would also require that the interactive computer services prove with a preponderance of the evidence that they should not be treated as the publisher or speaker of the third-party speech.
Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2022 (EARN IT Act of 2022)
This bill would eliminate section 230 immunity in cases that involved the sexual exploitation of children and would create a National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation prevention. The purpose of the commission would be to establish standards for interactive computer service providers to reduce and prevent online child sexual exploitation. These standards would include establishing a rating system to evaluate sexual material, developing training and support for content moderation staff, and providing additional parental controls for parents.
This bill is concerning for both privacy advocates and free speech activists. It could lead to social media platforms actively monitoring their platforms for any hint of sexual content. It could also discourage the use of encrypted communication tools such as Telegram and WhatsApp. While the bill states providers that utilize encryption services cannot be held liable based solely on encryption services, the use of encryption could be used in court as evidence of child sexual exploitation if the provider was aware of the abuse. Critics say that it will make law enforcement’s job harder and does little to stop the sexual abuse of children.
21st Century Foundation for the Right to Express and Engage in Speech Act (21st Century FREE Speech Act)
This bill would remove Section 230 and replace it with “Sec. 232. Reasonable, Non-Discriminatory Access To Online Communications Platforms; Blocking And Screening Of Offensive Material. It would change how large internet companies are classified. Any large internet company with 100 million active monthly visitors would be re-classified as a “common carrier technology company”, and be treated like a traditional phone company. It would require all common technology carriers to disclose their moderation policies and how they terminate user accounts if they violate them.
The bill would continue to provide some immunity for content created and shared by third parties, keeping the language of section 230 regarding the treatment of publishers and speakers the same. However, it would add new exceptions to the law. The immunity protection would not apply if the common carrier tech company took any action to restrict access or promote, increase or decrease the availability of content through manual moderation or the use of an algorithm. It would also still protect platforms that acted in good faith to remove obscene or illegal material.
Users could sue the company for up to $500 per violation. The FCC would also be required to establish best practices for complying with the new requirements.
What do you think about the proposed changes to Section 230?
After personally reviewing every one of these bills, I do not support any of these Section 230 reform proposals. Legislators are itching to regulate big tech companies. Do you agree with any of the proposed bills? And, do you think any of these bills will be passed in 2022?