Online Free Speech Rules Derail Defense Bill

John Lister's picture

A dispute over Internet law has led to a Presidential veto of a major defense bill. Lawmakers will now decide whether to reject Donald Trump's demands to remove rules on how websites and services handle content posted by users.

The bill in question authorizes US military spending for the next year. One of the quirks of the US legislative system is that bills can include measures which have little or nothing to do with the main subject of the proposed law. These measures are often the result of negotiation between politicians.

In this case, Trump wants the defense bill to include a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The defense bill passed Congress without including this repeal and Trump has now vetoed it. Lawmakers will vote this week with a two-thirds majority required in both houses to overturn the veto and turn the bill into law despite Trump's objections. (Source:

Law Protects Website Operators

Section 230 was originally designed to find a way of applying rules on free speech and publisher responsibility to online content. It's a brief passage which has two main measures. The first is that publishers aren't held responsible for content provided by a third party, for example on a website comment section or posts on a social network.

The second measure is that website operators acting in good faith can't be sued for deleting or moderating third-party content. Both Section 230 itself and subsequent court rulings say that sites deleting user posts doesn't violate the constitutional right to free speech.

Bi-Partisan Support To Revoke

Both Trump and President-Elect Joseph Biden have said Section 230 should be revoked, though for different reasons. Biden has argued that it gives sites like Facebook too much protection for lawsuits such as libel cases compared with traditional media sources. That argument has been disputed as the protection only covers material posted by users, not by Facebook itself. (Source:

Meanwhile Trump objects to the protection for sites deleting or moderating material. That view appears in part to be a response to Twitter putting "fact check" warnings next to his posts, along with the possibility that once he is no longer in office, it may delete any posts that violate its rules.

While it appears likely that Congress will reject Trump's demands on this occasion, the issue of Section 230 is unlikely to go away. Many politicians, lawyers and free speech campaigners have made suggestions about how it could be amended rather than removed. These include restricting the protections to sites who act in "reasonable" manner or making sites share responsibility if they are made aware that content is libelous or unlawful and then choose not to remove it.

What's Your Opinion?

Should Section 230 be revoked or amended? Is it appropriate to do so as part of a bill on a different topic? Should sites have the right to delete user content?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (6 votes)


banjoman_15_10660's picture

Freedom of Speech. It's not just for fun, it's important to have all sides of all issues available to read. Big tech is treating us like children that must be sheltered from the truth or the lie, depending on what their own agenda might be.
Stop Censorship.

ferretsgold's picture

Free speech does not give someone the right to harm another. It also should not be a right to spread falsehoods.

dan_2160's picture

As an attorney and member of the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, I can report that free speech is not unlimited. Quite some time ago before it was kidnapped by the radical right, the U.S. Supreme Court established time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech. One of the classic examples has long been that you have no legal right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Nor do you have a right to slander or libel somebody. The legal analysis can get quite nuanced; there are a lot of gray areas.

Free speech is critical for any democracy to function. As Dennis wrote, there have been efforts to strike a middle position by carefully and fairly amending Section 230 -- which would be the responsible way to proceed.

lesgray_cdn's picture

As an attorney, do you know or could clarify whether the free speech portion of the constitution applies only to government suppressing free speech or to everyone. My understanding was that it applied only to any form of government.

dan_2160's picture

The language in the Constitution is pretty clear -- government (and those acting on behalf of the government) cannot restrict free speech. So generally speaking, a website certainly is free to limit what is posted on it.

lesgray_cdn's picture

thank you dan_2160 for the your clarification and confirmation of what I thought.

buzzallnight's picture

Or start his own website?

I think twitter sucks actually

terrible user interface.....

matt_2058's picture

Congress shouldn't be allowed to lump bills together as a package. Maybe consolidate voting on these things, as we do on election day, having them vote on 20 different items on a particular day. But in no way consolidate different bills into one package as they do now, with a single vote being applied to everything they can dream up in a session.

The real problem here is politicizing the issue and it becoming a party thing. This was a problem before Trump, so to inject his personal agenda into the reason it needs modifying is ridiculous.

Draq's picture

As I understand things, that's all an unfortunate part of the negotiation process. One party wants one thing to happen and they need support from the other party. The second party doesn't really want to support it, but they're willing to if something they want gets put in. It probably snowballs from there and here we are. I'm not sure what else would work with a two-party system. What pisses me off is when people do that sneakily hoping no one will notice or care. Especially when it comes to getting something really important passed.

Chief's picture

Section 230 dealing with providers got derailed when the providers began editorializing and "fact" checking.

Just as a periodical can be sued, just as soon as FB and twitter, et al, decided to act like publishers, they lost their right to immunity.

When I joined the WWW, I never signed a document saying this was a private club that could censor me at any time for any reason.

Dealing with something you do not like or agree with with censorship only wins in the short term, if it wins at all.