Repealing Section 230 would be a gift to America’s rivals

As many families begin their annual holiday traditions, Congress is following suit with a tradition of its own: using “must-pass” legislation and decorating it like a Christmas tree filled with unrelated amendments. But while these amendments typically involve handouts for special interests, this year’s unrelated measure is a gift to our economic rivals.

It was reported recently that some senators were trying to add a repeal of Section 230 to the National Defense Authorization Act. On Tuesday, President Trump added fuel to this fire when he tweeted his intent to veto any version of the NDAA which did not repeal Section 230, calling it a threat to national security.

Section 230, once a little-known provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, has recently become a hot topic on Capitol Hill over arguments that it simultaneously allows for too much and too little user-created online content. Whether it allows for too much or too little all seems to depend on which side of the political aisle you are on.

In reality, the provision simply states that online service providers, also known as websites or apps, aren’t legally responsible for content created and posted by users. This means that Twitter isn’t legally responsible for the president’s tweets, Yelp isn’t responsible for bad user reviews, and newspapers aren’t responsible for the comments left on their articles.

While Section 230 is an important foundation of how our modern internet works, it has little to do with the funding of the military.

However, that is not to say that Section 230 doesn’t have national security implications. Protecting Section 230 helps ensure our place on top of the global pecking order.

American technological leadership in areas such as artificial intelligence, communication, and commerce are essential to our nation’s long-term security. Just days ago, Alphabet’s DeepMind cracked a problem related to protein folding, which could greatly accelerate vaccine development.

American messaging and social media apps compete with Chinese-based TikTok and WeChat. Both Chinese-based companies have questionable data privacy practices, leading it to be banned from some countries and departments of the U.S. government. American companies are taking the opposite path and competing on encryption and user privacy. Meanwhile, Amazon, Walmart, Etsy, and dozens of other online retailers compete against Alibaba to reach the world’s consumers.

All of these businesses rely on Section 230 to allow their business to run more efficiently and effectively. Even more distressing are the countless startups that may never get off the ground if the law were repealed. There is a reason that previous trade deals required other countries to adopt protections similar to Section 230. What’s good for American innovators writ large is good for all Americans and our national interest.

The president is certainly correct that many last-minute legislative packages are chock-full of corporate welfare to help grease the skids and ensure an easy passage. It’s doubtful that any coming end-of-the-year legislation is any different. Thankfully, Congress seems unlikely to add a repeal of Section 230 to the defense spending bill, even with Trump’s veto threat.

Section 230 remaining in law strengthens American national security. It empowers American technology companies to lead across the globe and share our values, rather than other large tech firms that often answer to much more authoritarian regimes.

There are worthwhile and thoughtful debates to be had about Section 230 and online content, and Congress has repeatedly held hearings on the subject. But these debates have nothing to do with military funding. Congress should keep Section 230 out of any debate of the NDAA.

Eric Peterson is director of policy for the Pelican Institute, a Louisiana-based think tank.

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