Biden’s Commerce Secretary Nominee Open to Some Section 230 Reforms

Biden’s Commerce Secretary Nominee Open to Some Section 230 Reforms
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) questions Gina Raimondo, nominee for secretary of commerce, during her Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on Jan. 26, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL)
Janita Kan

President Joe Biden’s pick for commerce secretary said on Tuesday that she is willing to work with Congress to amend a federal law that grants Big Tech companies protection from legal liability for users’ content.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-R.I.), who has been tapped to lead the Commerce Department, was asked during her confirmation hearing about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been made a focal point amidst a sparring match between the federal government and social media companies over censorship and accountability.

“I would agree that we need some reform in Section 230 and I would look forward to working with you on that,” Raimondo told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has been vocal about reforming the law.

She added that, if confirmed, she would use resources at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency housed in the Commerce Department, to convene stakeholders and engage with Congress members to discuss potential Section 230 reforms.

The NTIA is principally responsible for advising the president on telecommunications and information policy issues. Some of the agency’s activities include managing the federal use of frequency spectrum and identifying additional spectrum for commercial use; administering grant programs that help expand broadband use in America; and developing policy on issues related to the Internet economy, including online privacy, copyright protection, cybersecurity, and the global free flow of information online, according to its website.
In July 2020, the NTIA filed a petition (pdf) with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking it to issue rules that would clarify the operation of Section 230. Former FCC Chair Ajit Pai announced in October last year that the agency would move forward with the rulemaking, but earlier this month he dropped the task, saying that there was not enough time left in the Trump administration to proceed.

Former President Donald Trump and his administration had repeatedly urged Congress to roll back legal protections for companies that have engaged in censoring or political conduct. Trump and conservatives have criticized Big Tech companies for their unbalanced policing of user content on social media platforms. Critics claim that the companies are engaging in conduct that limits conservative viewpoints and stifles free speech.

Biden and his allies have also criticized Section 230 but for different reasons. Democrats argue that Internet companies are not doing enough to combat misinformation and the spread of hate speech by their users on their platforms. They want companies to play a bigger role in removing content and curating public discourse.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photograph. (Reuters)
Facebook, Google, and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photograph. (Reuters)

Section 230 rose to new prominence after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol breach, which saw Big Tech companies ramp up policing of user content that they said was harmful. Twitter on Jan. 8 permanently removed Trump’s account and justified its censorship by saying the president had violated its “Glorification of Violence Policy.” Many other platforms followed suit.

Meanwhile, Twitter and other companies also suspended or restricted accounts from other conservative commentators and groups.

The reasoning for Raimondo’s displeasure with Big Tech companies follows the same line of argument as other Democrats.

“I think platform accountability is important. I’ve seen in my own state that misinformation hurts people—misinformation posted anonymously or otherwise can hurt people,” Raimondo told lawmakers. “So we have to hold these companies accountable, we need platform accountability, but of course that reform would have to be balanced with the fact that these businesses rely upon user-generated content for their innovation and created many thousands of jobs.”

Twitter’s Policing

Trump was policed by Twitter for months prior to his account’s permanent suspension.

Leading up to and after the November general election, Twitter also increased its policing of posts by the president and other users over claims of voter fraud. In a Nov. 12 update, the social media company said it had applied labels, warnings, and other restrictions to about 300,000 posts from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11 for content that it classified as “disputed and potentially misleading.” This number represents about 0.2 percent of all U.S. election-related posts published in that time period.

“Twitter is going wild with their flags, trying hard to suppress even the truth. Just shows how dangerous they are, purposely stifling free speech. Very dangerous for our Country. Does Congress know that this is how Communism starts?” Trump said in a Twitter post on Christmas Eve.

The social media company also suppressed a series of exposes by the New York Post last year about the alleged business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of President Biden.

Twitter’s removal of Trump’s account has received widespread scrutiny. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley likened Twitter’s move to conduct by the Chinese communist regime.

The push to remove Section 230 protections has received push back from technology groups.

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