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Trump, Republicans seize on new stimulus debate to take aim at an old foe: Big tech

GOP leaders seek to repeal Section 230 as part of last-minute effort to approve new stimulus checks.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Bloomberg News)
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Senate Republicans are mounting a last-minute attempt to try to permit lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for the way they police their platforms, hoping that an urgent debate over congressional coronavirus aid might offer them an opening to deal a new blow to Silicon Valley.

The campaign specifically targets Section 230, a decades-old portion of federal law that spares a wide array of sites and services from being held liable for their users’ online speech. President Trump has asked Congress to repeal the rules repeatedly, renewing his threat on Tuesday as lawmakers debated a new round of one-time, $2,000 stimulus checks.

“Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP,” Trump tweeted. “Also, get rid of Section 230 — Don’t let Big Tech steal our Country, and don’t let the Democrats steal the Presidential Election. Get tough!”

McConnell blocks Democrats’ attempt to quickly approve $2,000 stimulus checks amid pressure on GOP to act

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged Trump’s request to have action on Section 230, the stimulus and other issues “linked together,” adding that the Senate soon would “begin a process to bring these priorities into focus.” McConnell declined to detail the Senate’s exact plans before ultimately introducing a bill that coupled the heightened stimulus checks with a repeal of the digital-age liability shield.

The gambit left some Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill confused — and others seething at the prospect that additional stimulus aid might be tied to a substantial yet unrelated question about the future of the Internet. Repealing Section 230 outright, as Trump long has sought, could have dramatic, damaging implications for the future of free expression online. It also threatened to doom any hopes for lawmakers to plus-up stimulus benefits before the end of the year.

“The American people overwhelmingly support $2,000 relief checks,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who helped design the digital-era protections that Trump and some GOP lawmakers now seek to scrap.

Wyden instead described it as a “poison pill” that aims to help Republicans at a time when two of the party’s lawmakers are facing tough reelection fights in Georgia. “It’s a classic McConnell move, use process gimmicks to kill popular policies and try to deflect the blame,” Wyden said in a statement.

The unexpected pivot to Section 230 marks another Republican broadside against a law that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other technology giants see as foundational for the Web. Trump previously sought to hold up an annual defense policy bill in an attempt to quash the law, only to see Democrats and Republicans strike a rare note of unity to override his veto.

Trump signs order that could punish social media companies for how they police content, drawing criticism and doubts of legality

Major tech companies and other sites and services — from small apps to large news publishers — maintain the decades-old Section 230 rules facilitate free online speech and give platform owners the legal leeway to moderate those posts without fear of lawsuits. Trump and his allies, however, have labored to undo the rules over unproven allegations that social media sites exhibit systemic bias against conservatives.

GOP leaders have ratcheted up their attacks in recent months as Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies more aggressively seek to discipline the president for spreading harmful misinformation, including falsehoods about the outcome of the 2020 election. Experts said the party’s strategy on repeal is misguided, particularly since it could backfire on a highly followed political figure such as Trump, whose incendiary posts could raise legal risks for social media sites.

Trump’s political motivations loomed large as McConnell on Tuesday opened the Senate for debate and pledged to take aim at Section 230. The GOP leader acknowledged the “growing willingness” among some in the chamber to “at least re-examine the special legal protections afforded to technology companies,” which he described as powerful.

Democrats share a general willingness to rethink the rules, believing that Facebook and its peers have long skirted accountability for allowing harmful content, including hate speech and misinformation, to proliferate wildly online. But party lawmakers on Tuesday took great issue with the timing and motivation behind Republicans’ new gambit, urging the Senate instead to focus its efforts on authorizing another round of coronavirus relief.

Section 230: The little law that defined how the Internet works

Citing “speculation” about McConnell’s plans, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) took to the chamber floor to blast Republicans for trying to fuse together the stimulus payments with “much more complicated measures, like the reform of our Internet liability laws.”

“That is an invitation for this entire effort to fall apart,” Murphy said, noting that the House-passed bill to increase the payments included no action on Section 230. “If we start adding poison pills to the $2,000 payment bill, that is just another way of telling the American people this body doesn’t support $2,000 payments.”

“Section 230 is badly in need of reform, but not for the reason the president says. Social media platforms are not capable of regulating themselves. They facilitate the spread of false, misleading and dangerous misinformation with total impunity. This issue requires careful thought — reforms must be developed by Congress, not on the fly and slipped into in a defense bill.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who put forward a proposal earlier this year to update the law, stressed that Congress has “the responsibility and prerogative to consider these changes to the way the Internet operates in an organized fashion.” And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who similarly has called for revisions to Section 230, criticized Republicans for “making a lifeline for struggling families contingent on a half-baked, meat-axe evisceration of the law.” He described the effort as “cruel and stupid.”

“This issue requires careful thought — reforms must be developed by Congress, not on the fly and slipped into a stimulus bill,” warned Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the leader of the House’s antitrust-focused panel who has called for such reforms.

Some Republican lawmakers also seemed skeptical about any effort to link the two.

“We need to approach it carefully, do hearings, write legislation and thoroughly consider the implications,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who cautioned she is not yet clear on McConnell’s plans. “I do think it needs to be reformed.”