I see that Trump is against Section 230. As I understand it, it relieves social media platforms from the liability associated with the content shared by 3rd parties, which I think should enable free speech. But why is then Trump against it, if he's for free speech? Am I either not understanding the law or Trump's position on it?

Because if you want social media platforms to be liable for the content others use them to share, you are only forcing them to censor content. It does not "retaliate against Facebook and Twitter for their perceived bias against him".


4 Answers 4


The controversial part of Section 230 is (c):

(c)Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

  • (1)Treatment of publisher or speaker 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.

  • (2)Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

    • (A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
    • (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).1

And the associated definitions:

(2)Interactive computer service The term “interactive computer service” means any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.

(3)Information content provider The term “information content provider” means any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.

Effectively, what this is saying is that:

  1. The social media company does not count as the "speaker" for anything a user uploads to them - the user is. This prevents you from suing Twitter for defamation if someone tweets negative things about you, copyright infringement if someone uploads a movie, and so on.
  2. The social media company does not become the speaker if they edit/restrict/block something a user uploaded... provided that they're acting in good faith. Without this, Twitter can either claim to be unaware of the specific content in question, or they can make edits to/restrict/remove it, in which case they clearly were aware of it and intentionally chose to distribute it (and thus become liable as the publisher/speaker of the content).

Trump (and other conservative voices) want to change #2 so that the social media companies would not be allowed to "restrict their free speech" by labeling or removing content. The problem is that without the protections from #2, social media companies have to choose between:

  1. Provide no filters whatsoever.
  2. Filter content before it gets uploaded.
  3. Get sued for publishing inappropriate/illegal/offensive material.
  4. Remove all content searching and only show content that the user specifically opted to see. (i.e. you could see the posts from a user you chose to follow, but no replies unless they're by a user you also follow. You could only be contacted by a user whom you chose to let contact you. And so on.)

This Ars Technica article goes into more detail about where Section 230 came from, some proposed changes, and what the implications of them are.

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    There's a 4th option, provide users with the option to filter.
    – Ryan_L
    Dec 29, 2020 at 20:16
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    The problem is that "objectionable" and "in good faith" are subjective. When first written, section 230 was geared toward what any rational person would consider lewd, obscene, violent, etc., and service providers were given an "out" to filter blatant child porn and other obvious bad stuff. Now, in our snowflake-riddled world, these platforms have taken the S230 meaning of "objectionable" to it's wildest extent, resulting in outright blocking of views deemed unpopular, controversial, or simply in conflict with the provider's viewpoint. This is the problem with subjective legalize.
    – mikem
    Dec 30, 2020 at 6:23
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    @mikem Twitter has a first amendment right to apply its own definition of objectionable to its own platform. In other words, Twitter has a first amendment right to be a snowflake.
    – phoog
    Dec 30, 2020 at 14:29
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    Agreed, but at that point, they become a publisher and should lose section 230 protection. No one is saying they can't filter content, but when they do and it's purely for their own gain, ie. not simply "in good faith" to protect against lewd & obscene content, but rather to push or prohibit certain viewpoints, then their protection under s230 comes into question.
    – mikem
    Dec 30, 2020 at 18:40
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    230 protects them so that they are not considered a publisher as long as they don't control the content, or so long as they only act in good faith. Once they break those lines, they have become a publisher and would/should lose 230 protections. As far as where the line is, that's the problem with subjectivity as I mentioned before. Lewd and obscene are fairly well established in American culture, from a majority standpoint... it's still a bell curve and there are the fringes. But, when we are talking about ideas and viewpoints, it's hard to get to lewd/obscene just because you disagree.
    – mikem
    Dec 31, 2020 at 0:33

Let me begin by saying your read of the situation is correct, and there is no plausible way that repealing Section 230 would lead to an increase in free speech on the Internet. Other answers have given good explanations of why that is, but your explanation is basically correct: increasing liability for user content will lead Internet companies to censor more user content. That's basic economics. Indeed, liberals who support Section 230 repeal like Beto O'Rourke and Joe Biden do so because they support an increase in social media censorship of speech they don't like, specifically hate speech and election misinformation respectively.

But why is then Trump against it, if he's for free speech? Am I either not understanding the law or Trump's position on it?

There is a third possible option here, namely that Trump's public position is not built on actual principle at all.

Section 230 has existed for decades, the repeal movement for a few years, but Trump's crusade against it began on a very specific date, May 28, 2020, when he issued an "Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship." The following day, he sent his first ever anti-Section 230 tweets.

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Two days earlier, May 26, marked the first time that Twitter had slapped a disclaimer on a Trump tweet.

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The White House executive order was pretty explicit that the order was being issued in response to Twitter's actions:

Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias. As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.

So if it seems to you through a plain reading of Section 230 that the actual effect of its repeal would be to stifle speech at great cost to Twitter, or to force Twitter to shutter completely... consider that might be the point?

  • You might consider replacing "force Twitter to shutter completely" with "bite the hand that feeds you."
    – phoog
    Dec 30, 2020 at 14:09
  • I feel this answer, while good, would be made better with an explicit spelling out bob's point, that the conservatives' complaint isn't that 230 protects social media from being sued but rather that it allows 'good faith' filtering when the conservatives want to force social media to never filter or restrict anything. A quick paragraph at the top explaining that distinction would make an already good answer an exceptional one.
    – dsollen
    Dec 30, 2020 at 16:07

There are several different things going on here. Let's start by going through the text of section 230:

  • (c)(1) says that a social media company (or other "provider of an interactive computer service") cannot be held responsible for the contents of user-generated content. Without section 230, courts would generally hold companies that moderate their content to a higher standard than companies that do not so moderate, according to prior case law. Under (c)(1), nobody can be held responsible for content they did not create. This also applies to things like retweets, because the liability shield is also extended to users.
  • Various social media companies are banning certain people from posting certain things, and/or labeling the postings as false or misleading. They have a First Amendment right to do that, assuming the "this is false or misleading" labels are substantially true (and therefore not libelous). Section 230 (c)(2) additionally says that social media sites cannot be held responsible for this sort of removal when it is done "in good faith," but it's unclear why they would be liable for it in the first place. There is no cause of action that allows the President (or anyone else) to force a private company to publish something the company does not wish to publish, and most of them also have terms of service explicitly empowering them to remove any content they like.
    Some people read (c)(2) as reinforcing (c)(1), as if it's saying "(c)(1) still applies even if the content is moderated," but this would render it surplusage because (c)(1) is already a categorical statement with no exception for moderation. Courts normally try to avoid rendering part of a law redundant, so I'm skeptical that a court would read it that way. Instead, (c)(2) more naturally reads as an entirely separate liability shield for moderation actions.
  • There has been much discussion of "publishers" vs "platforms," alleging that section 230 only applies to a neutral "platform" rather than a partisan or non-neutral "publisher." There is no language in the text which in any way supports this reading. Many on the right want to add a restriction like this, but it's not currently in the law as written. Repealing the law would have a similar effect, but as described above, instead of distinguishing between "publishers" and "platforms," it would distinguish between "sites that moderate content" and "sites that don't."
  • @WS2: Anonymous speech has always been permitted. It just used to be difficult. But not impossible; a newspaper could always publish an anonymous letter to the editor, if it so chose.
    – Kevin
    Dec 30, 2020 at 0:12
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    See also McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission for the status of anonymous speech under US law.
    – Kevin
    Dec 30, 2020 at 0:27
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    @WS2 While your account has a picture, I don't see any name given, making your comment in response to someone who at least shared their first name a bit hypocritical. Anonymous speech is essential in a democracy. Dec 30, 2020 at 4:14
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    @Kevin and one can post anonymous notices in public places.
    – phoog
    Dec 30, 2020 at 14:14
  • @Acccumulation Your point is well taken. What I meant was that none of the documents gave anyone the right to slander anonymously. I will delete my comment. It was badly worded. It is another matter if there is a public interest, where whistle-blowers clearly have to be protected. But there was a dreadful case in the UK where a professional footballer was reported to be having an affair (not a matter of "public interest", though it does "interest the public" - two different things). And the people making the allegations, and newspapers protecting sources, refused to say who was making them.
    – WS2
    Dec 31, 2020 at 9:31

Section 230 doesn't unconditionally protect internet companies from liability, it only does so if they are platforms, not publishers. By deleting posts, adding disclaimers and fact-check warnings, and banning users for legal speech, they are acting like publishers, not platforms.

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    Source? The section mentions "platform" never, and "publisher" once, which is where it says that (for example) Twitter shall not be treated as the publisher of what Donald Trump says. That's it. That's all it says. It doesn't say anything about "acting like publishers, not platforms" Dec 29, 2020 at 18:42
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    @user253751 - Yes, that's my point. "Platform = Interactive computer service". Pointing out that the text doesn't use the word "platform" (as per your comment) isn't really a relevant criticism.
    – Bobson
    Dec 29, 2020 at 20:01
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    @user253751 Funny how the fake news bannings only go one way. Nobody at the New York Times was banned for what they said about Nick Sandmann.
    – Ryan_L
    Dec 29, 2020 at 20:04
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    @Ryan_L - That's the point of Section 230. There's nothing there about being balanced or fair, or even consistent. It's protection against being sued for what they do, not what they don't do. As a private corporation, they are free to apply whatever policy they want, whenever they want, however they want. They can't be sued for leaving things up (they didn't create it), and they can't be sued for taking it down.
    – Bobson
    Dec 29, 2020 at 22:37
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    @Ryan_L This law doesn't says they are not liable for things they do in bad faith. Nor does it say they are liable. This law simply has no effect at all if the thing is done in bad faith. There may be another law which makes them liable for something they do in bad faith, and this law does not shield them. But this law does shield them from the other law if they do it in good faith. Dec 30, 2020 at 18:21

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