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The GOP v. the internet's favorite law

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hi all, it's Eric. It was a frantic week in the conservative assault against one of the tech industry's most prized legal shields. 

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas started things off soberly when he wrote that courts had interpreted Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act in a way that gave technology platforms much broader legal protections than required by law. Section 230 indemnifies tech platforms from lawsuits holding them responsible for things their users say. Thomas argued that the protections insulate platforms from the consequences of their own decisions, and that paring back the immunity would "give plaintiffs a chance to raise their claims." 

For months, President Donald Trump and other high-profile Republicans have held out the possibility of repealing Section 230 as a way to reel in Silicon Valley, which they charge is hostile to right-wing views. This week they got the chance to turn up the rhetoric, when Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. limited the reach of a report in the New York Post that purported to show how former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter were involved in a corruption scandal.

The Biden campaign has denied the central claims of the article, which have not been verified by other news sources. Facebook reduced its reach, saying it wanted to fact check it first. Twitter wouldn't even let users link to the report, citing its policy against posting hacked material. 

The action by the companies caused many Republicans, including the president, to claim Silicon Valley was openly taking sides in the presidential election. "So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of `Smoking Gun` emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost. It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230!!!" tweeted Trump. 

Republicans moved to subpoena Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey over the decision to block the unverified New York Post story. The House Judiciary Committee tweeted, "Section 230! Time's up, @jack." (Dorsey is already due to testify about Section 230 in a Senate hearing later this month along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google parent Alphabet Inc.)

On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a letter that he intends to move forward with rulemaking that would "clarify" the meaning of Section 230, following through on a plan the Trump administration set in motion this summer. "Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech," wrote Pai. "But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters."

A spokeswoman for the commission declined to comment further; Twitter has called the administration's attempts to weaken Section 230 as "reactionary and politicized." 

Repealing Section 230 might be a good way to punish technology companies, but it wouldn't necessarily get Republicans what they want. The provision protects platforms from legal action stemming from what their users post, so without it they would likely be more aggressive about pulling down potentially defamatory or otherwise problematic posts, not more lenient. Many legal scholars believe the First Amendment's free speech protections ensure Facebook's right to decide what posts stay online and which ones don't.  

"The First Amendment prohibits government censorship and protects private censorship," wrote Congressman Justin Amash, a former Republican from Michigan who now calls himself a Libertarian. "In a free society, Twitter and Facebook are allowed to make horrible decisions with respect to content moderation, and you are allowed to tell them off and use another service."—Eric Newcomer

If you read one thing

Nearly 2,000 accounts on investing site Robinhood were affected by a recent hack that siphoned off customer funds, according to someone with knowledge of an internal review. The attacks unleashed a torrent of complaints on social media, where investors recounted futile attempts to call the brokerage, which doesn't have a customer service phone number.

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

Stripe bought a Nigerian startup for $200 million, as it plans to expand its African operations. 

YouTube banned many QAnon channels, following on similar actions by Facebook and Twitter. 

A WeChat ban doesn't seem imminent, with a judge saying she's unlikely to allow it to go forward as the company appeals. 

 

 

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