The Communications Decency Act is a massive document. Ratified in 1996, it outlines the regulations and responsibilities of internet users and providers of services. Tap or click here to see what the Biden presidency could mean for the tech world.
But tucked away deep inside are 26 words that helped shape the net into what it is today. Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 reads: “No 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 layman’s terms, the meaning behind it is simple. No internet-based service can be held responsible for what users post, create, comment or share. The Section covers any user-driven website like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and even citizen journalism platforms. There are exceptions, however, as the Section doesn’t cover illegal activity.
Section 230: Protection for private blocking
It might sound like a fair piece of legislation. But the internet in 1996 was a different space from what it is today. Before debating whether Section 230 should be repealed, you must understand its context.
A key section is the 26-word paragraph in point 1 of paragraph C (Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material). The context can be found a few paragraphs above that, under “Findings.”
When initially presented to lawmakers in 1996, Congress had no idea just how aggressive internet use would become. Congress at the time found:
- These (internet) services offer users a great degree of control over the information that they receive.
- Rapidly developing internet services represent an extraordinary advance in the availability of educational and informational resources to our citizens.
- The internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development.
- The internet and other interactive computer services have flourished, to the benefit of all Americans, with a minimum of government regulation.
- Increasingly Americans are relying on interactive media for a variety of political, educational, cultural and entertainment services.
To Congress at the time, the internet’s growth and popularity were a marvel of future education and online discussions.
The internet was a happy place
Twenty-five years ago, the most visited website was AOL.com, with 41% penetration. Webcrawler.com followed with 33% and Netscape.com with 31%.
The internet was, in essence, a happy place back then. Skewed towards education and diversity, it’s easy to see why many didn’t pay too much attention to Section 230. They either didn’t understand it or foresee that it would one day become a problem.
The technology that shaped Facebook, Twitter and other message boards didn’t come along until much later. And by that time, Section 230 was a long-forgotten paragraph.
Why is Section 230 important?
Both sides of party lines agree that the Section needs to be changed to be more in line with today’s internet. Former President Donald Trump has been a vocal opponent of Section 230, taking aim at Twitter for initially flagging his tweets and then outright banning him.
In Executive Order 13925, he argued that Twitter should be treated as a content creator if it continues to censor users on its platform.
“This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators,” Trump wrote.
To him, it was an “all or nothing” scenario. He tried to point out that Twitter (under Section 230) can’t be held responsible for what he tweets. And if it isn’t liable, why is it censoring him?
The First Amendment
Former President Trump argued that censoring him or any other user inhibits freedom of speech. And it’s not a social media platform’s job to do that.
“…the immunity (granted by Section 230) should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”
On the other hand, President Biden has indicated that Section 230 should be repealed. He argues that social media and user-generated content platforms should be held responsible (to some degree) for what users post.
“The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false,” Biden said in January last year.
Where to go from here?
Sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are built on the foundation of Section 230 and changing it would drastically alter their business model. If held liable, sites would have to vet and approve every piece of content posted.
“Basically, the Biden administration is inheriting a lot of momentum and a big opportunity to make online communications safe for democracy and fair in the commercial sphere,” explained Sarah Miller from the American Economic Liberties Project.
Democrats are urging to change the Section so that websites will be responsible for filtering out harmful content like hate speech, terrorism and harassment.
Republicans, most notably former Attorney General William Barr, also want social media platforms to police content more strictly. But there is a caveat: he wants to punish websites that selectively moderate users or show a bias towards one side.
In the middle are the thousands of websites that have made a business model off Section 230 and wash their hands of any liability. The consensus as to what happens next? We simply don’t know.