Obama wishes he had been tougher on China, labels Big Tech liability protections 'untenable'

The former president said social media 'turbocharged' disinformation

Barack Obama has called tech company liability protections “untenable” and lamented not taking a tougher stance against China during his administration.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Obama reflected on his tenure and the aftermath of his time in the White House. He spoke about how he allowed the circumstances surrounding his election to influence his decision making more than he liked – particularly regarding the economy and China.

“One of the things I was reminded of in writing the book was just how many of my earliest choices were premised on the very specific circumstances of being a global financial meltdown,” Obama said, noting that he wasn’t a “knee-jerk anti-trade guy,” but that he allowed China to get away with more than he would have had he not needed help during a global recession.

“And if we hadn’t been going through a financial crisis, my posture toward China would have been more explicitly contentious around trade issues,” Obama added. “But I couldn’t have a trade war in 2009 or 2010.”

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A trade war with China has been the centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy over the past two years – a policy that succeeded in reducing short term trade deficits, but then led to greater overall trade imbalance, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While Obama could wax philosophical about what he might have done, he also turned his attention towards what needs to be done: namely, he spoke of the liability protections around tech companies, calling them “untenable.”


Those protections have come under sharp scrutiny in recent months as information control became a central issue in the U.S. presidential election. Companies such as Twitter started to flag comments that they deemed “misinformation” or “unproven claims,” drawing outrage from some circles over what many deemed outright censorship.

Tech companies have testified multiple times before Congress now, with executives from Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon weighing in on the federal law known as Section 230, which protects social media platforms from liability for the content users post.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Many see the rule as outdated, particularly as the companies gather increasing influence due to their reach, but some tech executives, such as Mark Zuckerberg, believe that it is necessary to “update the law,” according to the Washington Post.

Obama specifically took issue with the way that social media has helped to spread disinformation at a “turbocharged” pace, though he doesn’t hold them ultimately responsible.

“This predates social media. It was already there,” Obama said. “The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like the Atlantic, I do not think is tenable.”


“They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not,” the former president said. “The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for every view that is out there.”