70+ Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Organizations Warn Against Repealing or Making Overbroad Changes to Section 230 in Wake of Capitol Attack

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Groups call on Congress to investigate the harm done by SESTA/FOSTA and hold hearings on the human rights impacts of altering Section 230 

Defending Rights & Dissent joined more than 70 organizations that sent a letter to Congress and the Biden/Harris administration warning against responding to the violence in the U.S. Capitol by renewing injudicious attacks on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The groups, including racial justice, LGBTQ+, Muslim, prison justice, sex worker, free expression, immigration, HIV advocacy, child protection, gender justice, digital rights, consumer, and global human rights organizations urge lawmakers to consider impacts on marginalized communities before making changes to Section 230, and call on lawmakers to take meaningful action to hold Big Tech companies accountable, including enforcement of existing anti-trust and civil rights law, and passing Federal data privacy legislation. 

See the letter here. 

“Gutting Section 230 would make it more difficult for web platforms to combat the type of dangerous rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol. And certain carve outs to the law could threaten human rights and silence movements for social and racial justice that are needed now more than ever,” we write, “Section 230 is a foundational law for free expression and human rights when it comes to digital speech. It makes it possible for websites and online forums to host the opinions, photos, videos, memes, and creativity of ordinary people, rather than just content that is backed by corporations.”

The letter urges lawmakers to pass the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act to investigate the harm done by SESTA/FOSTA, the last major change to Section 230, and to hold hearings on the human rights, freedom of expression, and civil liberties concerns associated with changing the law, before legislating further. Defending Rights & Dissent also opposed SESTA/FOSTA.

“Congress needs to reject their natural tendency to look for easy, politically safe, answers to complex problems. Gutting Section 230 will do much more harm than good to the communities they say they want to protect,” said Sue Udry, executive director of Defending Rights & Dissent.”Gutting Section 230 will lead to online censorship that will only protect the status quo and silence those fighting for racial, environmental and economic justice, because these are always the voices that get silenced.”

Ricci Levy, President and CEO of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation agreed, “If Congress wants to ensure online censorship on a massive scale, repealing Section 230 is an option. If instead, lawmakers hold fast to their constitutional duty to promote the right to free expression, the First Amendment of the Internet should remain as is.”

Tawana Petty, National Organizing Director, Data for Black Lives, spoke to the harms the changes would do to marginalized communities and dissenters, “Big Tech companies’ surveillance minded business practices automate and exacerbate white supremacy and injustice. We need lawmakers to take meaningful action to address this, rather than continuing their misguided attacks on Section 230. Gutting this foundational law could lead to widespread silencing of marginalized voices and social movements, and make it harder for platforms to address harmful content. If Congress is serious about addressing systemic injustice in the wake of the racist attack on the U.S. Capitol, they should listen to the communities most impacted, rather than doubling down on their empty talking points.” 

“This is not a game. Section 230 is one of the most important laws protecting freedom of expression and human rights in the digital age,” said Evan Greer (she/her), director of Fight for the Future, “Lawmakers need to listen to the communities who are most impacted by systemic injustice before they enact legislation that could do enormous harm to vulnerable communities, silence activists, and put lives in danger. Any lawmaker who pushes for changes to Section 230 without first supporting the study bill to investigate the harm done by SESTA/FOSTA is being reckless. Big Tech companies’ business model is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and social justice. But we don’t need headline-grabbing bills that do more harm than good. We need thoughtful policy, informed by lived experience, now more than ever.”

Alex Andrews of SWOP Behind Bars warned of the dangerous precedent set by earlier 230 ‘reform’ efforts,  “FOSTA fallout has harmed sex workers and their families and done nothing to reduce trafficking or improve the lives of sex trafficking victims.  The shuttering of online platforms forced online sex workers into more dangerous modalities and made it impossible to survive. Because our organization advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, we could easily face prosecution for “promoting” prostitution and we can’t advocate for our clients under these conditions. We beg our lawmakers to listen to our stories and understand the desperate need to provide more resources for economically disadvantaged people who have little access to services and support.”

“The world’s eyes are on the U.S. as the country struggles with social media platforms’ role in the January 6 insurrection and related white supremacy,” said Jennifer Brody, U.S. Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “However, knee-jerk attempts to change Section 230 will only do further damage to at-risk communities already facing the brunt of social media platform concentration and power. Congress instead should approach Section 230 deliberations thoughtfully and place human rights at the center of any reform, which must tackle tech companies’ profit incentives that lead to the amplification of harmful content.”

“In the age of mass disinformation — and massive unchecked corporate power — Section 230 provides vital protections to Latinx and migrant communities,” explained Matt Nelson, Executive Director of Presente.org, the nation’s largest Latinx digital organizing group. “Last fall, Presente, our partners, and allies were censored by Facebook after organizing a National Day of Action to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Section 230 protects our communities from Big Tech wielding its power to silence Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) social movements that protect our human rights,” concluded Nelson.