What Is Section 230 And Why Is Trump Raging About It?

A few days ago, soon to be former President Donald Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill passed by the House of Representatives that, among other things, approves $740 billion in defense spending. Most of the time, the NDAA passes with bipartisan support and very little opposition, but it’s 2020 so that obviously didn’t happen. 

Trump’s key issues with the NDAA include provisions to rename bases currently named after Confederate soldiers, you know, the traitors who lost in a war against the union, and because the bill does not include provisions to repeal Section 230, a decades-old section of the Communications Decency Act. 


Yup, you read that correctly. Donald Trump, who loves our troops, vetoed a necessary bill that would give those who serve our country a 3% pay raise because he is upset about an unrelated communications law. 

So, What Exactly Is Section 230?

Almost every communications professor I ever had referred to the provision as one of the most important pieces of legislation protecting freedom of speech on the internet. Section 230 was created with bipartisan support as an attempt to just make the internet a better place. 

Word for word, the law says that “o 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.” In short: the people are responsible for what they post, not the platform they post it on. 

Before section 230, if a company DID moderate their message board, they were treated as a publisher. This meant that they were at risk of being sued for any fraud, harassment, or libel that happened on the message board. Because of this legal risk, companies would be less willing to censor what users can post, if they censored things at all.

There were obvious problems with that type of behavior, as there are very few justifications for punishing companies who were just trying to make their platforms more pleasant places. So, Section 230 tried to fix that issue and basically said that if platforms moderated offensive content, they would have legal protections from being sued for free speech violations when they do so. 

Ok, What’s Trump’s Problem With It?

The two-time popular vote loser has grown increasingly frustrated with Twitter’s ability to put warnings on his tweets that contain blatant lies about things like Covid and the election. So, this spring, the president issued an executive order that said that when companies – like Twitter or Facebook – edit or moderate content, they lose the legal protections offered by Section 230. 

Here’s the thing, Trump isn’t necessarily wrong to be against Section 230. For a while, there has been strong bipartisan opposition to the provision. This is because most “big tech” companies take advantage of the legal protections offered by Section 230 without using their moderation power in good faith (*cough* Facebook *cough*). 

Earlier this year, Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and Blumenthal partnered with Republicans such as Senator Lindsey Graham to introduce a law that would effectively make it so companies had to earn Section 230 protections. The EARN IT act, which is incredibly problematic, hasn’t solved any of the key issues with Section 230 and puts sex workers and many other groups at risk of privacy violations. 

Republican and Trump-led opposition to Section 230 is rooted in a desire to stop moderation (aside from when it comes to violent or obscene content) and often involves repealing the act altogether. 

Conversely, Democratic opposition to Section 230 focuses on the lack of moderation of content that contains dis/misinformation or hate speech. Largely, Democratic lawmakers oppose fully repealing the provision and are more in favor of reforming and updating it. 

TLDR: Section 230 was created in the 1990s, long before platforms like MySpace even entered our public consciousness. Many opponents to Section 230 on both sides of the aisle (including myself) feel that Section 230 is outdated and that it offers too many protections to social media companies. While Republicans think that these companies should have almost no ability to moderate content, Democrats feel that they should be pushed to further their moderation of problematic content and clarify the terms of content moderation processes. 

Long story short, while countless Americans are starving, have lost their jobs and healthcare, and are unable to pay rent, the Commander in Chief is doing what he does best: throwing a sh*t fit over Twitter and attempt to protect the legacies of literal confederate soldiers. As of right now, the House has voted to override Trump’s veto of the NDAA, especially because, again, Section 230 has literally nothing to do with the bill.

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The Government Might Ban TikTok, So Learn Your Dances Now

Did you, a millennial, finally break and download TikTok? Did you tell yourself you were only doing it so you could lurk at first, and now you’re spending your days learning full-fledged choreography? Well, your shot at TikTok stardom might be short-lived, if the Trump administration gets its way. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the administration was considering banning TikTok over privacy and security concerns. Anddd this is why we can’t have nice things. Is TikTok nice? Maybe not. In that case, this is why we can’t have mildly entertaining things.

Pompeo expressed to Fox News that the administration’s concerns with TikTok have to do with whether the company is giving private user data to the Chinese government, since it is owned by Beijing-based tech company Bytedance. But Bytedance insists they’re not doing that, and told Business Insider in a statement, “TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy in the US.” Indeed, on June 1, they hired Kevin Mayer, Disney’s former head of streaming, to serve as the CEO. They added, “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

The United States is not the only company who has issues with the video app, and on July 1, India banned TikTok (as well as a slew of other Chinese apps) after it was discovered that the app could secretly access user’s clipboards in a beta version of iOS 14. And I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too: if the Chinese government wants a draft of the text calling out a f*ckboy that I’m first sending around to all my friends for approval, they can have it. Right?

Ehhh maybe not. I spoke to Cyber Security Expert Vinny Troia who explained that apps copying your clipboard could pose security issues, for instance, if you use a password manager and copy and paste it into various apps. It could also copy things like email addresses, account-reset links, personal messages, and cryptocurrency wallets (lol good thing I was already too stupid to figure out cryptocurrency).

But there was another issue, as Troia explained: “it appears when people are on other apps, like Instagram, Tiktok is grabbing that content.” He explained that this could have been set up for benign reasons, “like predictive text”, but says, “there’s really no reason it should be monitoring what you’re typing in other apps.” A TikTok representative claimed the feature “was triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behavior. We have already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion.”

Okay so TikTok is grabbing the contents of my clipboard every 1-3 keystrokes. iOS 14 is snitching on it with the new paste notification pic.twitter.com/OSXP43t5SZ

— Jeremy Burge (@jeremyburge) June 24, 2020

Even though TikTok claimed the clipboard copying was a technical bug due to an anti-spam filter, the damage was already done, and the Indian government pulled the app, claiming it (along with 58 others) “engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” So, whatever the reason may be, the app appears to be (or appeared to have been) collecting users’ data without them knowing. To what end? Well, that’s the bajillion dollar question.

The ban also came after a border dispute between China and India turned deadly, and there are also more subtle concerns that the app restricts free speech, especially with respect to criticizing the Chinese government, so maybe it’s not about the pasta clipboards at all, but something a lot deeper and darker than what I presumed when I initially thought I’d be writing a quick piece on if TikTok is going away.

If you (again, like me), are wondering WTF any of that means, this issue can be loosely translated to various governments saying of TikTok:

Do Not Trust Her

So, is TikTok in fact a fugly slut? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, you have Mike Pompeo literally telling Fox News that you should download the app “Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” On the other hand, TikTok says they are like, totally chill and would never sell your info out. And of course, you’d have to take both those sentences with more grains of salt than you can find in a Himalayan salt cave since of course both those parties would say exactly those things.

Donald Trump has also expressed his desire to ban TikTok in the U.S., but for less… shall I say… altruistic reasons. Trump said in an interview with Gray Television’s Greta Van Susteren, “Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” adding that banning TikTok is “one of many” ways his administration is considering for getting back at China. Ah yes, that sounds more like the Trump we know and… know. And I’m sure it has nothing to do at all with the fact that TikTok was the main social media platform on which his rally in Tulsa got trolled.

Before you freak the f*ck out, one thing to keep in mind is, as Troia notes, “I’m not seeing indication that this information is going anywhere. So it could be just bad programming.” Basically, just because TikTok is storing this information doesn’t necessarily mean they are necessarily sending it somewhere, and TikTok has asserted that they are, in fact, not sending any stored information to the Chinese government. Also, it’s not just TikTok, and a bunch of your apps are doing the same sh*t with the clipboard copying.

So is TikTok a not-so secret weapon by the Chinese government or an unfortunate victim in a power grab, like a child caught between two parents in a divorce? I have no answers, so whether you want to keep using TikTok is up to you—for now. Somebody call Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, because it’s complicated. All I’m saying is that none of this was happening back when we had Vine.

Images: Kon KarampelasUnsplash