Trump and Biden agree on something – changing Section 230

White House proposes fill-in-the-blanks tech policy reform

The White House has said tech platforms should be more competitive and more accountable without specifying how that will be accomplished.

In a statement issued after on Thursday after a meeting with rights advocates, academics, government officials, executives from Mozilla and Sonos, and none of the tech giants targeted by these policy proclamations, the White House declared six principles reaffirming longstanding, unachieved goals.

The listening sessions convened by the White House identified six areas of concern: promoting competition in the tech sector; providing strong federal protection; offering children even more privacy protection and safety than whatever privacy adults are afforded; removing so-called special legal protections" for tech platforms (ie Section 230); increasing transparency around algorithms and content moderation decisions; and stopping discriminatory algorithmic decision making.

The call to remove tech platform legal protections reprises ongoing demands from both sides of the political divide to limit or eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online companies that host or distribute unlawful content from being treated as the publisher of that content and from assuming the legal liability that follows from publication.

Much of the skeptical response from industry observers arises from the vagueness of White House declarations on "reforms," particularly in light of Section 230.

"If you claim to support 'fundamental reforms' to Section 230 but can’t or won’t say what those reforms are, I have a hard time taking anything else you say seriously," said James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Law School and Cornell Tech, via Twitter.

"We're disappointed to see the @WhiteHouse today roll out the tired line that Section 230 is a 'special legal protection' for tech platforms," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, via Twitter. "It protects all of us: users, small websites, message boards, and newsgroups."

President Biden, like his predecessor and many Republicans, has voiced concern about Section 230. During his 2020 campaign, Biden told The New York Times in an interview, "...Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms." He argued the law should be undone because social media platforms knowingly disseminate falsehoods and misinformation.

President Trump also called for the repeal of Section 230. Republicans continue to be upset that content moderation efforts on social ad platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have blocked campaign rhetoric and social media messaging as misinformation.

Without Section 230, internet companies willing to risk liability would presumably institute pre-publication editorial reviews of all publicly distributed content or a system for rapidly removing offending items post-publication. Neither option is likely to be economically viable at scale. And depending upon the text of whatever rule gets put in place, companies might still get dragged into court. In short, simply revoking Section 230 without making some accommodation for platform liability would cause havoc.

The devil is in the details

The other calls to action suffer from a similar lack of specificity. "There should be clear limits on the ability to collect, use, transfer, and maintain our personal data, including limits on targeted advertising," the White House statement says. Defining those limits remains a lobbyist slugfest.

Calls for a federal privacy law have been echoing for years but the ongoing dysfunction in Washington has left privacy legislation to state legislatures. Renewing the call for a federal privacy law won't make two political parties operating on different planes of reality more likely to hammer out workable legislation that the tech industry can live with and consumers can embrace.

Likewise, the need to address the opaqueness of algorithmic decisions and potential algorithmic discrimination are worthy goals. But the devil is in the absent details. In the case of content moderation algorithms, for example, how do you expose the decision making process without also providing a roadmap for how to get misinformation past the automated checkpoint? There are ways to do such things but they're complicated and tend not to fit into political soundbites.

We can all agree something should be done. Figuring out specifically what should be done and how it will be implemented takes more than wishing for a better world.

At least the Biden administration is aware that further work is required.

"These principles are the culmination of months of work by the administration and engagement with numerous stakeholders," said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a Thursday briefing. "They also consist [of] work that the administration has been doing and will continue to do."

Asked to provide specifics, Jean-Pierre responded, "I don’t have anything specific to add. … The President has long called for fundamental legislative reforms to address these issues, and we look forward to continuing that work with Congress to make bipartisan progress on these issues." ®

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