In an interview with the New York Times' editorial board, former Vice President Joe Biden made his most stringent call yet for cracking down on free speech on the internet.
After being asked by the Times about previous comments Biden has made regarding Facebook's refusal to remove negative ads targeting his campaign, the Democratic front-runner attacked both the social media platform and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
"I've never been a fan of Facebook," Biden says. "I've never been a big Zuckerberg fan, I think he's a real problem."
Biden and Facebook have been feuding for months, as Reason has previously covered. In an October letter to Facebook, Biden's campaign called on the social media site to reject political ads containing "previously debunked content"—like a Trump campaign ad linking Biden and his son, Hunter, to corruption in Ukraine. Shortly afterwards, Zuckerberg said the company's policies were "grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is."
That hasn't sat well with Biden. In a CNN town hall event in November, Biden said he would be willing to rewrite the rules for all online platforms in order to force social media companies to "be more socially conscious."
In this week's interview with the Times, Biden has gone a step further. Now he's calling for revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996—a snippet of federal law that's generally regarded as the internet's First Amendment, since it protects online platforms from being legally liable for content produced and posted by third parties.
"Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms," says Biden.
When the Times' Charlie Warzel points out that Section 230 is "pretty foundational" to the modern internet, Biden takes his personal disagreement with Zuckerberg and blows it up into a policy that would destroy free speech for all internet users.
"That's right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy," Biden says. "You guys still have editors. I'm sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It's irresponsible. It's totally irresponsible."
Biden goes on to say that both Zuckerberg and Facebook should be held civilly liable for false information posted on the platform, and even leaves open the possibility that Zuckerberg could somehow be held criminally liable. All of this, Biden says, is because Facebook ran "Russian ads" during the last presidential campaign.
Those ads were comically bad and had a negligible impact on the outcome of the 2016 election. What would significantly impact the future of American democracy and society would be the elimination of Section 230 protections for the entire internet.
But if you look back at Biden's long political career, it's not too surprising that Biden is willing to take overly broad federal action that will surely have unintended consequences.
It's not that Biden has been an opponent of free speech in meatspace or online. (He even voted for the Communications Decency Act when it passed the Senate back in 1996.) But Biden has a long history of jumping aboard the political bandwagons created by moral panics, pushing policy to expand the government's power to deal with perceived threats.
As I detailed in a Reason feature last month, Biden was instrumental in passing a 1984 anti-drug law that effectively created the modern civil asset forfeiture system which has been regularly abused by law enforcement to seize cash, cars, homes, and other valuables from individuals who are often never charged with a crime. In 1986, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, spurred by a moral panic over several high-profile deaths caused by cocaine. The bill added more mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes, including the provision requiring a five-year prison term for anyone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powdered cocaine. That massive discrepancy "unjustly and disproportionately" penalized African Americans and poor communities, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a 2006 report on the law.
Later, he co-sponsored a 1988 law that bolstered prison sentences for drug possession crimes and established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, effectively creating an internal lobbying organization to defend the drug war against critics.
Most famously, Biden championed the 1994 crime bill and its harsh "three-strikes" rule, which imposed life sentences for anyone convicted of a violent felony if they had two prior offenses on their record—including drug crimes.
You see echoes of that same playbook in his attacks on social media companies. To Biden, sweeping penalties are the only way to stop what he sees as a crisis—consequences be damned.
To pass those crime bills, Biden worked closely with Republicans. Even in today's era of heightened partisanship, Biden touts his ability and history of working across the aisle as a chief virtue. So there is good reason to worry about a President Biden finding common cause with Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) to repeal Section 230.
Decades later, it's now obvious that the anti-drug policies of the 1980s and 1990s have had disastrous consequences for many Americans—especially minorities, who have been particularly victimized by the arbitrary crack/powder distinction Biden once pushed—and have filled prisons with nonviolent offenders.
Revoking or rewriting Section 230 would be similarly bad. Free speech online has given voice to everyone and cracking down on that right, as with all forms of censorship, would most hurt those who have less political or social power.
But you can expect Biden to frame this as a commonsense solution that reasonable people on both sides of the aisle support. That's what he does, and that's why he's dangerous.