The 26 words included in a 1996 telecoms overhaul allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the behemoths they are today.
An upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, Gonzalez sues Google, challenging the law—specifically, whether technology company responsible for the material posted on their platform.
Judges will decide whether the family of an American college student was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris can sue Google, which owns YouTube, over claims that video platformOur proposed algorithm helped extremists spread their message.
The second case, Twitter v. Taamneh, also focuses on liability, albeit on different grounds.
The results of these circumstances could reshape the Internet as we know it. Section 230 will not be easily lifted. But if that’s the case, online speech can be drastically altered.
WHAT IS SECTION 230?
If a news site calls you a scammer, you can sue the publisher for defamation. But if someone posts that content on Facebook, you can’t sue the company—only the person who posted it.
This is thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be deemed a publisher or spokesperson for any information provided by another content provider.”
That legal phrase protects companies that can store trillions of messages from being sued into oblivion by anyone who feels wrong for something someone else has posted — whether their claim is legal or not.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have argued, for different reasons, that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms social media platform have abused that protection and will lose the immunity—or at least gain it by meeting the requirements set forth by the government.
Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts, such as content that are obscene or that violate the service’s own standards, as long as they act according to “good faith.”
SECTION 230 FROM WHEN?
The history of this measure goes back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were held accountable for selling books containing “obscene” content, which were not protected by the First Amendment. A case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court, which argued it created a “chilling effect” to hold someone accountable for someone else’s content.
That means the plaintiffs must prove that the bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, says Jeff Kosseff, author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” on Section 230.
Fast-forward the next few decades as the commercial Internet begins to grow with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offer online forums, but CompuServe chose not to censor it, while Prodigy, looking for a family-friendly image, did.
CompuServe was sued for that and the suit was dismissed. The prodigy, however, was in trouble. The judge in their case ruled that “they exercise editorial control — so you’re more of a newspaper than a newsstand,” Kosseff said.
That doesn’t sit well with politicians, who worry that the outcome will discourage internet startups from censoring. And Section 230 was born.
“Today, it protects both liability for user posts as well as liability for any claims of content moderation,” says Kosseff.
WHAT IF SECTION 230 CHANGES?
“The basic thing we do on the internet is we talk to each other. It can be email, it can be social media, it can be message boards, but we talk to each other. And a lot of conversations. That’s enabled by Section 230, which says that anyone who gives us permission to talk to each other will not be responsible for our conversations,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University specializing in internet law. said. “The Supreme Court could easily obfuscate or dismiss that basic proposition and say that the people who allowed us to talk to each other are responsible for those conversations. Then they won’t. allow us to talk to each other again.”
There are two possible outcomes. Platforms could become more cautious, as Craigslist did after the passage of the 2018 sex trafficking law, which provides a Section 230 exception for material that “promotes or facilitates prostitution.” . Craigslist quickly removed its “personal” section, which is not intended at all to facilitate prostitution. But the company doesn’t want to take the risk.
“If platforms aren’t exempt by law, they won’t risk the liability that can come with hosting Donald Trump’s lies, defamation and threats,” said Kate Ruane, former Senior legislative adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, currently working. for US PEN.
Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms could drop censorship altogether and let the lowest common denominator prevail.
Such unmonitored services can easily be dominated by scammers, such as 8chan, a website notorious for its offensive and extremist content.
Any changes to Section 230 could have a ripple effect on online speech globally.
“The rest of the world is cracking down on the internet even faster than the US,” Goldman said. “So we’re way behind the rest of the world in internet censorship. And the question is whether we can hold it on our own.”
Correction note: This story has been corrected to state that Kate Ruane is a former senior legislative adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union and currently works for PEN America.
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