The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Section 230 does not need a revocation. It needs a revision.

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks in Lancaster, Pa., on Thursday.
Former vice president Joe Biden speaks in Lancaster, Pa., on Thursday. (Mark Makela/Reuters)
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PRESIDENT TRUMP and Joe Biden both think Internet platforms have it too easy — but for very different reasons. Neither really gets it right.

“REVOKE 230!” the president tweeted late last month, the day after signing an executive order seeking to punish platforms for alleged systematic anti-conservative censorship that the evidence says doesn’t exist. “Section 230 . . . immediately should be revoked,” his Democratic rival told the New York Times. Mr. Biden is of the opposite opinion: that companies aren’t removing enough harmful material. Proposals on the table today try to address both sets of concerns.

Mr. Biden at least has a better handle than Mr. Trump on the purpose of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was designed to encourage Internet sites to moderate content without worrying about being punished for anything illicit that got through. The legislation, which shields companies from liability for content posted by third parties, has sometimes offered sites too free a pass — permitting them to refuse to remove illegal activity and even, at times, to solicit it. Yet wholesale repeal would certainly threaten the Web as we know it.

What’s needed isn’t a revocation but a revision. There should be a lot to like, then, in a recommendation from the Justice Department to strip protections from platforms designated “bad Samaritans” for encouraging lawless content — holding the worst actors accountable for turning their sites into instruments for abuse, while still sheltering those that act responsibly. Unfortunately, the department adds on a counterproductive provision that would also strip protections from platforms that go beyond “good faith” in removing content.

The Justice Department markets this idea as all about transparency. Yet the administration’s recent order — plus a “good faith” bill from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) explicitly designed to prevent the so-called silencing of conservatives — makes it look more like a cudgel to wave at companies that moderate too vigorously for the government’s taste.

A less threatening way to achieve transparency arrives in a new bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), which calls for forthright terms of service as well as timely complaint and appeals processes. The legislation would also require sites to expeditiously remove content deemed illegal by a court of law. Unlike another bipartisan proposal known as the Earn It Act, this bill wouldn’t force platforms to adopt government-mandated moderation practices, including ones that would effectively ban end-to-end encryption.

There’s another reason to fear that the administration’s approach is thinly disguised bullying. Attorney General William P. Barr said on Fox News on June 21 that platforms have pulled a “bait-and-switch” by holding themselves out as open forums. “One way this can be addressed is through the antitrust laws,” Mr. Barr hinted. This is the real threat to the First Amendment: an attempt from the White House to tell private companies what rules they can set and what values they can enact. Section 230 is in need of reform, but it’s easy to see here who’s not acting in good faith.

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