Biden’s Commerce nominee backs changes to Section 230

In a hearing on her nomination for Commerce Department secretary on Tuesday, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo told lawmakers that she will pursue changes to Section 230 if confirmed.

Responding to questions posed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Raimondo said that she would use the tools available through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to convene stakeholders, industry leaders, lawmakers and others to identify the means of reform to the pivotal internet law.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It’s increasingly controversial and frequently misinterpreted, however. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore real harm to users. On the other hand, some lawmakers incorrectly claim that it only protects “neutral platforms” — a term that’s irrelevant to the law.

“I think platform accountability is important because I’ve seen in my own state that misinformation hurts people,” Raimondo said. “But of course, that reform would have to be balanced against the fact that these businesses rely upon user-generated content for their innovation, and they’ve created many thousands of jobs.”

Last year, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sought to pare back platform liability protections under Section 230. The order prompted NTIA to draft a petition arguing for the Federal Communications Commission to reinterpret the law. After months of sitting on the petition, former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai declined to act on the petition. It’s unlikely that Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel or any future Biden nominee will act on the petition.

Nathan Simington, now a Republican FCC commissioner, helped put together the NTIA’s Section 230 petition and is seen as a leading Republican advocate for modifying the pivotal measure.

It’s unclear how the Biden administration plans to address Section 230 concerns, but Raimondo’s comments offer some insight into what could come in the future. In an interview with The New York Times last year, Biden said that the law should be “revoked.” Once Trump signed his social media order, a Biden campaign spokesperson told The Verge that he still wanted to repeal the law but disagreed with the former president’s executive order.

When it comes to addressing monopoly power in the tech industry, Raimondo said she would leave those decisions up to Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. Still, Raimondo told Johnson, “I believe in competition and innovation and as it relates to social media companies, I think they need to be held accountable for what they put on their platform.

“We have to hold these companies accountable,” Raimondo said.

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