December 02, 2020
Apparently, Donald Trump has gotten into his head that he wants to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Apparently, he is upset that Facebook and Twitter have pointed out that much of what he posts is not true.
It’s not clear what Trump thinks he would accomplish by repealing this provision of the law. Section 230 exempts Facebook and other Internet intermediaries from being liable for material that is passed along through their systems, either as ads or through individuals’ or groups’ posts. The loss of this protection would actually make it more likely that Facebook and Twitter would restrict false information coming from Donald Trump and his allies.
But the consequences of repealing Section 230 would go far beyond its impact on Donald Trump’s ability to spew crazy conspiracy theories over the web. It would almost certainly fundamentally restructure the Internet, as I explain here.
The basic story is that making Facebook and other intermediaries liable for defamatory material circulated over their systems would impose enormous costs on these networks. They would have to monitor hundreds of millions of posts and constantly be dealing with complaints about defamation.
This would both directly eat into their profits, since it will require a huge commitment of personnel, and also likely lead to a loss of traffic, as people got annoyed at having material pulled off the site. If Section 230 protection were left in place for true common carriers — sites that did not profit from selling ads or personal data — we would likely see a massive migration to old-fashioned bulletin boards and other sites where people could post what they wanted without review.
The net effect would be to make Facebook much smaller, so what Mark Zuckerberg chose to favor or ban would not make much difference to anyone. To my mind, this would be a fantastic outcome and the world would have been well-served by this particular Trump temper tantrum. But, has anyone ever known Trump to do anything good?