President Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized a decision by Facebook and Twitter to limit the distribution of a New York Post story about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and called for a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“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,” Trump wrote in a tweet, referring to a story about Hunter Biden over which Facebook and Twitter took action earlier in the day to stop people spreading.
The story centered on alleged documents and photographs from a hard drive obtained by the New York Post, which included an alleged email indicating that Hunter Biden introduced his father, who was serving as the vice president, to a top Ukrainian natural gas executive at Hunter’s request. Biden previously said that he has “never spoken” to his son “about his overseas business dealings.”
Biden’s campaign responded to the claims in New York Post report on Wednesday afternoon.
“Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as ‘not legitimate’ and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing. Trump administration officials have attested to these facts under oath,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement to news outlets.
In his tweet, Trump called for a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from liability for content posted on their platforms while letting them moderate it. While publishers can be held liable for any content they post, social media platforms are protected by Section 230, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks during a town hall in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)
The law currently allows companies to block or screen content “in good faith” if they consider it “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” But in recent years, the legal protections afforded have been used to shield online platforms that engage in “censoring” or “political conduct,” Attorney General William Barr wrote in a September letter to Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Barr announced a legislative proposal “to modernize and clarify the immunity” that Section 230 affords to social media companies.
“They no longer function as simple forums for posting third-party content, but use sophisticated algorithms to suggest and promote content and connect users. Platforms can use this power for good to promote free speech and the exchange of ideas, or platforms can abuse this power by censoring lawful speech and promoting certain ideas over others,” Barr wrote.
Some of the proposals include replacing vague terms like “otherwise objectionable” with more specific language “promoting terrorism, promoting violent extremism, promoting self-harm, and unlawful” in order to prevent broad interpretations of the law. The legislative proposals also limit immunity to online platforms who do not abide by its own terms of service and public representations by failing to consistently apply their terms of service.
The tech industry has been resisting efforts to revamp or repeal Section 230, saying that the DOJ proposals could limit people’s ability to express themselves online.
“Small community listservs, religious forums, and anyone else who hosts and moderates online content would face new legal restrictions and requirements on every content decision. Current good-faith moderation efforts that remove things like misinformation, platform manipulation, and cyberbullying would all result in lawsuits under this proposal. Even commenting on another individual’s post could open an online forum or individual to a flood of litigation. This proposal won’t make Americans safer online and instead will fundamentally limit online services’ ability to create communities for people to express themselves,” the Internet Association Deputy General Counsel Elizabeth Banker said in a statement. The Internet Association is a lobbying group that represents Internet companies.
Section 230 has been put under the spotlight in recent years after lawmakers on both sides of the aisles raised concerns over the way Internet companies handle disinformation and hate speech. Several lawmakers have made various proposals to amend the law, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), whose Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act aims to hold Internet companies accountable for censoring political speech and hiding content created by competitors.
Trump signed an executive order on May 28 directing federal agencies to develop regulations that protect users from unfair or deceptive content restriction practices employed by online platforms.
Mimi Nguyen-Ly and Peter Svab contributed to this report.