Joe Biden, who is campaigning for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, believes internet companies like Facebook should not have legal protections covering speech posted to their platforms by individual users — a change to existing U.S. law that would have sweeping implications.
The former vice president under President Obama, in an interview with the New York Times published Friday, said that Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act “should be revoked, immediately should be revoked” because Facebook “is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”
Last fall, Facebook drew fire — from Biden and others including screenwriter Aaron Sorkin — for running an ad bought on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign that asserted without evidence that Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a $1 billion bribe to not investigate his son. In the wake of the controversy, Facebook has refused to back off its policy of not fact-checking political ads.
In the Times interview, Biden singled out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying, “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.” He called Facebook’s stance regarding regulation of speech on the platform “totally irresponsible” and said Zuckerberg and his company should be subject to “civil liability” for false and damaging statements allowed on Facebook the same way traditional publishers are.
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Facebook declined to comment on Biden’s remarks specifically, but a rep pointed to testimony of Facebook VP of global policy management Monika Bickert at a House subcommittee hearing last week. In an exchange with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Bickert said in part, “Section 230 does provide us certain protections; the most important from my standpoint is the ability for us to go after abuse on our platform but separately it is also an important mechanism for people who use the internet to be able to post to platforms like Facebook.”
Biden’s declaration that Section 230 should be revoked set off alarm bells among tech-policy watchers — who warned that removing that provision would return the internet to an all-or-nothing state in terms of managing speech.
Biden “has it wrong in almost every way when it comes to his criticism of Section 230,” Free Press senior policy counsel Gaurav Laroia said in a statement.
According to Section 230 of the act, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Section 230 provides liability protections to internet platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for what users say on those platforms and also “explicitly allows platforms to moderate those spaces as they wish,” Laroia continued. “Repealing Section 230 as Biden recommends would return us to the world of the early and mid-’90s, when the law gave internet companies a choice — either allow nearly all speech and posts, including hate speech and falsehoods, with few rules and nearly no moderation, or assume editorial and legal responsibility for every single post or utterance on their sites.”
Any changes to Section 230, according to Laroia, “should be undertaken carefully and cautiously with an eye to protecting marginalized and vulnerable communities — and with an understanding that it’s the First Amendment, not Section 230, that allows individuals to engage in the speech of their choosing, for good and for ill.”