Debates about content moderation, especially on social media, have been a background hum throughout Donald Trump's presidency. Early criticisms of his tone and comportment on the campaign trail morphed into more tangible worries about what a smartphone-happy commander in chief meant for America (Did he just threaten nuclear war in a tweet?) and reached a fever pitch in 2020 as he used social media to spread misinformation, first about the coronavirus and then about election fraud.
As social media platforms evolved new policies to rein in Trump's transgressions and those of his most toxic fans, Trump responded by zeroing in on Section 230 — the previously obscure law giving websites such as Facebook and Twitter latitude to moderate their users' posts — as Big Tech's original, censorship-promoting sin. His allies in Congress took up the banner at repeated hearings in which they hit Silicon Valley's top executives with accusations of liberal bias.
But now Trump is banned, at least temporarily, from Facebook and Twitter — and Instagram and Snapchat and Twitch and Shopify and Stripe — for his role in inciting a lethal riot at the U.S. Capitol last week; the Trump-friendly alt-platform Parler has been cut off from basic internet infrastructure; and a variety of pro-Trump message boards and hashtags have shut down or been blocked.
The question now is whether Trump's social-media silencing also mutes the calls to repeal Section 230, with last week's violence demonstrating the need for aggressive policing of extremist online speech — or whether, in making Trump a martyr, the platforms only energized those who believe their power to censor must be curbed.
Trump is far from the only national politician in favor of revisiting internet speech laws. President-elect Joe Biden has also called for the repeal of Section 230 — but in hopes of encouraging more moderation of content, where Trump wanted less. High-profile Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have also expressed an openness to rethinking the law.
With Democrats winning both of Georgia's runoffs last week, effectively giving the party bicameral control of Congress heading into Biden's term, change is likelier, but there's no consensus about what form it should take.
"There have been a lot of ideas coming out of the Democratic caucus on what potential amendments to [Section] 230 might look like," said Emma Llansó, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology's Free Expression Project. "There's not one bill sitting out there that they're all already lined up behind."
Instead, she said, there's a spectrum of proposals, focused on issues such as child sexual abuse, transparency and due process, and content recommendation algorithms.
Fact-finding efforts and even more congressional hearings will probably define Democrats' efforts in the early days of Biden's term, she said.
Other Democrats have been more hesitant to change the landscape — foremost among them Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who co-wrote Section 230 decades ago.