Trump is trying to link stimulus checks, defense spending to a contentious tech protection – what to know

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump has launched a full-bore attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
  • Section 230 shields tech companies from being held liable for what users post on their platforms. Trump wants it repealed.
  • The president has tied the issue to the passage of a crucial annual defense spending bill and, more recently, to the prospect of approving an increase in coronavirus relief checks to $2,000 from $600.
Former President Donald Trump
Carlos Barria | Reuters

President Donald Trump is pressuring his Republican allies over a law that has protected social media companies for decades.

In his final weeks in office, Trump has launched a full-bore attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 law that shields tech companies from being held liable for what users post on their platforms.

Trump wants Section 230 gone. He has tied the issue to the passage of a crucial annual defense spending bill and, more recently, to the prospect of approving an increase in coronavirus relief checks to $2,000 from $600.

"Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP. $600 IS NOT ENOUGH!" Trump tweeted Tuesday.

"Also, get rid of Section 230 - Don't let Big Tech steal our Country, and don't let the Democrats steal the Presidential Election. Get tough!" he wrote.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle — including President-elect Joe Biden — have voiced complaints about Section 230, and some have taken steps toward reforming the provision. But there's little appetite on Capitol Hill for repealing it outright, much less for slipping such a repeal into the $740 billion defense bill or the latest pandemic relief legislation.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appears to have taken heed of Trump's demands.

On Tuesday afternoon, McConnell introduced a bill that would directly couple an increase in stimulus checks with a repeal of Section 230. That bill would also form a bipartisan commission to study the "integrity and administration" of the 2020 election, which Trump has falsely insisted he won over Biden.

McConnell's bill is highly unlikely to reach the 60-vote threshold required to pass in the Senate. But its failure could be a win for Republican lawmakers, many of whom had opposed a boost in stimulus checks and were caught off-guard by Trump's late-stage demand.

Here's what to know about Section 230 and where it stands:

How it started

Section 230 was written by former Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., following a 1995 court ruling against the online service Prodigy.

That company had been sued for defamation after an anonymous user on its platform accused an investment firm of fraud. The court ruled that because Prodigy moderated some of the posts on the platform, it should be treated like a publisher.

Cox and Wyden, disagreeing with that decision, introduced Section 230 as a way of protecting tech companies from becoming legally liable for their users' content if they opted to moderate it. The law allows for companies to engage in "good Samaritan" moderation of some material without being treated like a publisher or speaker under the law.

How it's going

More than two decades later, the prospect of repealing Section 230 would likely be a dealbreaker for many lawmakers.

Throughout countless discussions about reforming the liability shield, members have largely agreed that some of its protections are important for the continued function of an open and relatively safe internet.

For example, the law not only protects tech platforms from being held accountable for their users' posts, but it also allows them to remove "objectionable" messages. While the term is open for the platforms' interpretations, that portion of the law allows companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube to swiftly remove messages of terrorism, violence or self-harm without fearing that a lapse of judgment will land them in legal trouble.

And while conservatives aim for fewer restrictions to be imposed on their posts, repealing Section 230 could result in even more limitations. Without its liability protection, platforms could be incentivized to screen more content before it can be uploaded.

Some Democrats have also soured on the law. Biden voiced distaste for Section 230, telling the New York Times editorial board in January that the protection "immediately should be revoked" for tech platforms including Facebook. But that remedy seems to fall beyond many Democrats' wishes, which often include imposing more responsibility for platforms to moderate posts as allowed by Section 230.

'You're mad at Twitter'

Jaap Arriens | NurPhoto | Getty Images

The National Defense Authorization Act, which typically passes with overwhelming bipartisan support and veto-proof majorities, is a sweeping defense bill that authorizes a topline of $740 billion in spending and outlines Pentagon policy.

This year's legislation includes a 3% pay raise for U.S. troops, a plan to rename military installations bearing names of Confederate leaders, and a slew of other provisions. In mid-December, the NDAA passed the House and the GOP-led Senate with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Trump nevertheless vetoed the bill last week, in large part because it lacked language repealing Section 230.

The move forced many GOP lawmakers into the uncomfortable position of possibly overriding a veto from a Republican president who commands strong support within his party. The Democrat-majority House on Monday voted to override Trump's veto, and McConnell is poised to push forward with a similar vote in his chamber.

Trump, who refuses to concede his loss to Biden in an election where down-ballot Republicans outperformed expectations, is still heaping pressure on his political allies to fulfill his demand to gut Section 230.

"Weak and tired Republican 'leadership' will allow the bad Defense Bill to pass," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.

"Say goodbye to VITAL Section 230 termination," he wrote before listing other grievances with the NDAA. "A disgraceful act of cowardice and total submission by weak people to Big Tech. Negotiate a better Bill, or get better leaders, NOW! Senate should not approve NDAA until fixed!!!"

The president had signed the coronavirus relief and government spending bill into law Sunday. That bill includes $600 direct payments for Americans — but days before signing it, Trump called for those payments to be bumped up to $2,000.

How $600 stimulus checks and boosted unemployment benefits help the overall economy
How $600 stimulus checks and boosted unemployment benefits help the economy

McConnell on the Senate floor Tuesday outlined three priorities Trump had asked Congress to address when he signed that Covid bill: larger direct payments, questions about Section 230 and unfounded concerns about widespread election fraud.

"This week, the Senate will begin a process to bring these three priorities into focus," McConnell said.

McConnell followed through on those remarks later in the day, by adding a bill to the Senate calendar that would combine a direct-payment boost, a repeal of Section 230 and the establishment of an election commission.

The GOP leader had blocked a bid from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, to unanimously pass an increase in stimulus checks to $2,000.

Schumer promptly slammed McConnell's bill as a "cynical gambit" to give cover to Republicans while depriving struggling Americans of much-needed funds.

"Senator McConnell knows how to make $2,000 survival checks reality and he knows how to kill them," Schumer said in a statement.

"If Sen. McConnell tries loading up the bipartisan House-passed CASH Act with unrelated, partisan provisions that will do absolutely nothing to help struggling families across the country, it will not pass the House and cannot become law – any move like this by Sen. McConnell would a blatant attempt to deprive Americans of a $2,000 survival check.

"Will Senate Republicans go along with Sen. McConnell's cynical gambit or will they push him to give a vote on the standalone House-passed CASH Act?" Schumer's statement said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had already pushed back on Trump's 11th-hour demand to include the repeal of Section 230 in the NDAA, saying it was irrelevant to its passage.

"First of all, 230 has nothing to do with the military," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters earlier this month.

"We ought to do away with 230, but you can't do it in this bill. That's not a part of the bill," Inhofe added.

"You're mad at Twitter. We all know it. You're willing to veto the defense bill over something that has everything to do with your ego, and nothing to do with defense," Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said on the heels of Trump's veto threat.

Meanwhile, some GOP senators, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said they would be supportive of Trump vetoing the NDAA in order to repeal or reform Section 230.

Last week, Graham, wrote on Twitter that he would not vote to override the president's veto. Graham did not vote for the bill the first time.

Additionally, Graham who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation earlier this month that would end, by Jan. 1, 2023, the protections of Section 230 unless Congress takes action sooner. The bill seeks to incentivize lawmakers to take action on much-discussed reforms, which have so far failed to reach a consensus. Graham has introduced other bills that would modify, though not fully revoke, the protections of Section 230.