Section 230 is threatened in new bill tying liability shield repeal to $2,000 checks

Tech got dragged into yet another irrelevant Congressional scuffle this week after President Trump agreed to sign a bipartisan pandemic relief package but continued to press for additional $2,000 checks that his party opposed during negotiations.

In tweets and other comments, Trump tied a push for the boosted relief payments to his entirely unrelated demand to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a critical but previously obscure law that protects internet companies from legal liability for user-generated content.

The political situation was complicated further after Republicans in Georgia’s two extremely high-stakes runoff races sided with Trump over the additional checks rather than the majority of Republicans in Congress.

In a move that’s more a political maneuver than a real stab at tech regulation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new bill late Tuesday linking the $2,000 payments Republicans previously blocked to an outright repeal of Section 230 — a proposal that’s sure to be doomed in Congress.

McConnell’s bill humors the president’s eclectic cluster of demands while creating an opportunity for his party to look unified, sort of, in the face of the Georgia situation. The proposal also tosses in a study on voter fraud, not because it’s relevant but because it’s another pet issue that Trump dragged into the whole mess.

Over the course of 2020, Trump has repeatedly returned to the ideal of revoking Section 230 protections as a cudgel he can wield against tech companies, particularly Twitter when the platform’s rules result in his own tweets being down-ranked or paired with misinformation warnings.

If the latest development sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Section 230 and the stimulus legislation have nothing at all to do with one another. And we were just talking about Section 230 in relation to another completely unrelated bit of legislation, a huge annual defense spending bill called the NDAA.

Last week Trump decided to veto that bill, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support because it funds the military and does other mostly uncontroversial stuff, on the grounds that it didn’t include his totally unrelated demand to strip tech companies of their Section 230 protections. Trump’s move was pretty much out of left field, but it opened the door for Democrats to leverage their cooperation in a two-thirds majority to override Trump’s veto for other stuff they want right now, namely those $2,000 stimulus checks for Americans. Sen. Bernie Sanders is attempting to do just that.

Unfortunately, McConnell’s move here is mostly a cynical one, to the detriment of Americans in financial turmoil. An outright repeal of Section 230 is a position without much, if any, support among Democrats. And while closely Trump-aligned Republicans have flirted with the idea of stripping online platforms of the legal shield altogether, some flavor of reform is what’s been on the table and what’s likely to get hashed out in 2021.

For lawmakers who understand the far-reaching implications of the law, reform rather than a straight-up repeal was always a more likely outcome. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that Section 230 gets repealed through this week’s strange series of events, many of the websites, apps and online services that people rely on would be thrown into chaos. Without Section 230’s liability protections, websites from Yelp to Fox News would be legally responsible for any user-generated reviews and comments they host. If an end to comments sections doesn’t sound so bad, imagine an internet without Amazon reviews, tweets and many other byproducts of the social internet.

The thing is, it’s not going to happen. McConnell doesn’t want Americans to receive the additional $2,000 checks and Democrats aren’t going to be willing to secure the funds by agreeing to a totally unrelated last-minute proposal to throw out the rules of the internet, particularly with regulatory pressure on tech mounting and more serious 230 reform efforts still underway. The proposed bill is also not even guaranteed to come up for a vote in the waning days of this Congressional session.

The end result will be that McConnell humors the president by offering him what he wanted (kind of), Democrats look bad for suddenly opposing much-needed additional stimulus money and Americans in the midst of a deadly and financially devastating crisis probably don’t end up with more money in their pockets. Not great.