Industry Experts Caution Against Extreme Politicization in Section 230 Debate

Reforming Section 230 may not ‘break the internet,’ but experts recommended that changes be targeted and incremental.

Industry Experts Caution Against Extreme Politicization in Section 230 Debate
Photo of Billy Easley, senior public policy lead at Reddit, courtesy of Jess Miers

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2023 — Congress should reject the heavily politicized rhetoric surrounding Section 230 and instead consider incremental reforms that are narrowly targeted at specific problems, according to industry experts at State of the Net on Monday.

“What I really wish Congress would do, since 230 has become this political football, is put the football down for a second,” said Billy Easley, senior public policy lead at Reddit.

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Instead of starting from Section 230, Easley suggested that Congress methodically identify specific problems and consider how each could best be addressed. With many issues, he claimed that there are “a slew of policy options” more effective than changing Section 230.

Much of the discussion about Section 230 is “intentionally being pitted into binaries,” said Yaël Eisenstat, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society. In reality, she continued, many proposals exist somewhere between keeping Section 230 exactly as it is and throwing it out altogether.

Eisenstat expressed skepticism about the often-repeated claim that changing Section 230 will “break the internet.”

“Let’s be frank — the tobacco industry, the automobile industry, the oil and gas industry, the food industry also did not want to be regulated and claimed it would completely destroy them,” she said. “And guess what? They all still exist.”

Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, claimed that many arguments against Section 230 reform are “harkening back to a more libertarian view, which is ‘let’s not touch it because bad things can happen.”

“I think that’s absurd,” he said. “I think even from a political standpoint, that’s just not the reality.”

Potential reforms should be targeted and consider unintended consequences

While Section 230 has performed “unbelievably well” for a law dating back to 1996, it should at least be “tweaked” to better reflect the present day, said Matt Perault, director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina.

But Perault acknowledged that certain proposed changes would create a significant compliance burden for smaller platforms, unlike large companies with “huge legal teams, huge policy teams, huge communications teams.”

Concerns about the impact of Section 230 reform on small businesses can be addressed by drawing distinct guidelines about which types of companies are included in any given measure, Thayer said.

Easley warned that certain proposals could lead to major unintended consequences. While acknowledging Republican concerns about “censorship” of conservative content on social media platforms, he argued that removing Section 230 protections was not the best way to address the issue — and might completely backfire.

“There’s going to be less speech in other areas,” Easley said. “We saw this with SESTA/FOSTA, we’ve seen this in other sorts of proposals as well, and I just really wish that Congress would keep that in mind.”

Thayer suggested that future legislative efforts start with increasing tech companies’ transparency, building off of the bipartisan momentum from the previous session of Congress.

Easley agreed, adding that increased access to data will allow lawmakers to more effectively target other areas of concern.

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