Trump’s crusade against a key internet law known as Section 230 tends to pop up in unlikely places. His Twitter feed on Thanksgiving, for one. Or at times you’d think the nation would be hearing from its leader on the matter at hand: a worsening pandemic that’s killed nearly 270,000 people in the United States.
His latest threat to the law, which is widely regarded as the foundation for the modern internet, is unlikelier still. Now, Trump wants to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that allocates military funds each year, if it doesn’t somehow “terminate” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
In a tweet, Trump mysteriously called the law a “serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity” and claimed that only big tech companies benefit from it, which is not true. Big tech’s lobbying group made the opposite argument in response to the president’s new threat.
“Repealing Section 230 is itself a threat to national security,” Internet Association Interim President and CEO Jon Berroya said in a statement. “The law empowers online platforms to remove harmful and dangerous content, including terrorist content and misinformation.”
Section 230, which protects internet companies from liability for the content they host, is currently at the center of a complex bipartisan reform effort — one that’s nowhere near a consensus, much less an agreement that Section 230 should be scrapped outright.
President Trump’s threat to block the NDAA stakes out a deeply unpopular position. The sweeping defense budget bill includes all kinds of funding for popular programs that benefit U.S. troops and veterans, making a veto of the bill if the terms of a totally unrelated demand aren’t met a strange gamble indeed. The fact that Trump’s latest anti-230 tactic comes during a lame duck session gives his threat even less bite.
In light of that, most of Congress has gone about business as usual so far. But close Trump ally Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) did signal his support for Trump’s position on Wednesday. “The NDAA does NOT contain any reform to Section 230 but DOES contain Elizabeth Warren’s social engineering amendment to unilaterally rename bases & war memorials w/ no public input or process,” Hawley tweeted. “I cannot support it.”
If history is any lesson, Trump isn’t afraid to make an empty threat, eventually pivoting to something else that catches his attention. But Section 230 — previously a fairly arcane piece of legislation that attracted little mainstream attention — has rankled Trump for the better part of the year, even inspiring an executive order back in May.
That executive order gets at the real reason behind Trump’s ire: He believes that social media companies, Twitter in particular, have unfairly censored him. While Twitter has continued to allow Trump to remain on its platform even as he flaunts the rules, the company now limits the reach of his most dangerous or misleading tweets — false claims about the election results, for example — and pairs them with warning labels.
Paradoxically, if Trump got his way, an outright repeal of Section 230 would open online platforms up to an insurmountable level of legal liability, either sinking social media companies outright or forcing them to severely restrict their users’ speech.
It’s possible that the president could dig his heels in, pushing the defense spending bill into President-elect Biden’s term. But it’s more likely that Trump will back off of his unusual demand, which so far has yet to attract much support or even acknowledgement from his own party. At the moment, Congress is also preoccupied with work on a second pandemic stimulus bill that would offer more financial support to the country.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored Section 230, remains unworried that a repeal could get stuffed into the multi-hundred billion dollar defense bill in the eleventh hour.
“I’d like to start for the Blazers, but it’s not going to happen either,” Wyden told TechCrunch. “It is pathetic that Trump refuses to help unemployed workers, while he spends his time tweeting unhinged election conspiracies and demanding Congress repeal the foundation of free speech online.”