Online Whiz Kid Joe Biden Thinks We Should Trash a Crucial Law for the Internet

Joe Biden's big idea about repealing CDA Section 230 worries some internet activists.
January 23, 2020, 1:00pm
Joe Biden via Getty Images

Joe Biden, who might not know the difference between a URL and a text message and who punctuates tweets like a grandpa, has very strong opinions on one of the most nuanced and controversial guiding principles of the internet: Section 230.

"The idea that [Facebook is] a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms," the former vice president and current presidential candidate said in a nearly impenetrable response to a question about Facebook's power during an interview published last week in the New York Times.


Section 230 is a piece of legislation introduced in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects platforms from being held accountable for the speech of their users. It's one reason why platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan have flourished—for better or worse, Section 230 has allowed them amass millions of users without having to take the blame every time one of those users does something illegal.

“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,” the law states.

In that interview, New York Times journalists questioned Joe Biden on an array of topics, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to war crimes to whether he's too old to run for president. But as someone who frequently covers internet laws and how they affect marginalized communities, his strongly-worded statements about Section 230 stood out. Experts on internet freedom have been dwelling on and debating about this legislation for decades. It's incredibly controversial.

Biden's not the first presidential hopeful to poke the bear that is Section 230. Beto O'Rourke (RIP to his campaign) made revising it part of his platform around reducing gun violence, by holding social media platforms responsible for hateful content by their users. Several other Democratic candidates have suggested that the Communications Decency Act needs to be amended. But Biden is the first Democratic candidate to say, in no uncertain terms, that it needs to be repealed entirely.

Many nonconsensual porn activists are vocally against keeping Section 230 as-is. Attorney Carrie Goldberg, who is representing a stalking victim in a lawsuit against Grindr in a case that hinges on CDA protections is outspoken about needing to hold platforms accountable for their users' malicious actions.

"If you can never be sued for anything bad or negligent, you don’t have an incentive to build basic safety features into the products to prevent people from being harmed by them," Goldberg told MIT Technology Review in August.

Others take a more moderate approach, suggesting reform over total repeal of the law. Some worry that dismantling the law will leave those with already-tenuous freedom of speech online—like sex workers and other marginalized voices—at the mercy of big tech. In the last few years, Facebook has cracked down further on mentions of sex and sex education, Tumblr banished all NSFW content, and Instagram continued to be hostile toward sex work and nudity. Most of these crackdowns have been parts of efforts to appease prudish advertisers, but platforms have also banned users to avoid violating the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, passed in 2017, which amended Section 230 to add an exception that holds platforms liable for hosting sex trafficking ads. In effect, FOSTA has harmed adult sex workers, while there is little evidence it has protected minors.

"Marginalized communities who already have trouble accessing good and accurate sex education and products would have an even harder time without Section 230," adult industry attorney Maxine Lynn told Motherboard. "Repeal of Section 230 could open the door to even more systemic censorship on what some believe is 'immoral' content… Without a free and open internet, it could leave many people vulnerable to inaccurate, and just plain wrong information, or possibly no information at all, about sex, sexual wellness products, and pornography," Lynn said.

Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel at nonprofit Free Press, said in a statement to Motherboard that although Biden is correct to be concerned about privacy, surveillance, and misinformation abuses by big tech, he "has it wrong in almost every way" in his criticism of Section 230. “Any fixes to Section 230 should be undertaken carefully and cautiously with an eye to protecting marginalized and vulnerable communities," Laroia said, "and with an understanding that it’s the First Amendment, not Section 230, that allows individuals to engage in the speech of their choosing, for good and for ill."