Section 230. If you've been on the internet or watched the news within the past year, you've heard of it. You know Trump wants it gone because he doesn't like being fact-checked on Twitter and having some of his tweets limited. But what the heck is it? What is it a section of? Why does it exist? What does it have to do with social media? Why do Trump and the Republicans want to repeal it so desperately?
Section 230 was part of the Communications Decency Act, the common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The CDA came about because some people in Congress had realised the internet had porn on it, and children could use the internet, therefore children had unregulated access to porn. So lets make it illegal to have porn on the internet, is what the law essentially did, since it's not feasible to actually verify someone is above 18 when visiting a website. Spoiler alert: there's porn on the internet. The CDA itself was struck down unanimously by the Supreme Court for infringing on free speech, but Section 230 remained.
Section 230 had been added to the CDA due to two lawsuits from the early '90s. The first, in 1991, Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServ, Inc. found that CompuServ could not be held liable for defamatory statements that had been made on one of their forums because they provided no moderation for any of the user-generated content posted. The second, Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Servs. Co. found that Prodigy, a company hosting online message boards, was liable for all the content posted on its site because they engaged in some level of moderation, and thus were acting as a publisher. In order to avoid liability, they would need to give up all moderation. By all laws of common sense, that is a ridiculous conclusion. Thus, Section 230 was born.
Congress wanted to encourage the growth of the intenet by protecting free speech, so Section 230 says that any "interactive computer service" will not be held as a publisher of third-party content. It also protects those companies from being held liable for restricting access to any content posted on their site, whether it is constitutionally protected speech or not. In Trump terms: Twitter cannot be sued for the false statements the president makes daily, and Trump cannot sue Twitter for restricting the audience for those false statements
Section 230 and the Ordinary Citizen
There have been several lawsuits brought by ordinary citizens under Section 230, each affirming that any company that hosts content on the internet, whether a webpage, a search engine, or an ISP, has broad immunity from being held liable for that content. It does not matter if the content is false, or promotes illegal activity, or leads to severe harassment. In a recent case, Herrick v. Grindr, Grindr was held not liable for the creation of fake profiles by Herrick's ex-boyfriend that led to 1000 men showing up at his apartment and workplace expecting sex. The fake accounts impersonating him stated he was into rape fantasties, setting up very real threats to his personal safety.
Reform is Necessary
Section 230 was intended to enable free speech to thrive online, and thrive it has. We wouldn't be able to have the social media sites we do without it. But it was also meant to encourage platforms to engage in moderating the content posted by users by not holding them responsible for all content. In practice, large corporations have been granted broad immunity from liability without needing to engage in moderation; having their cake and eating it, too. It is unconscionable and illogical that companies have no responsibility to removed fake profiles that lead to real-world harm. The internet is the real world now. The protections are important, but they need to be narrowed down and aimed towards specific situations. I do not have specific ideas for reform because I am neither in charge of writing laws nor an expert on the internet.
Republicans Don't Understand the Internet
I just wanted that to be a subtitle, to be honest. But seriously, Trump and his party genuinely believe that conservative speech is censored unfairly online. Trump, and perhaps others, also think fact-checking is censorship. I'm not sure the man would know real censorship if it slapped him in the face. But anyway, that's why they want Section 230 entirely repealed. Not realising, of course, that would result in more censorship and certainly see Trump and the majority of Republicans lose their Twitter accounts. The other option: a return to the unmoderate internet. Of course, we already know what the unmoderated internet has to offer: it's called the dark web. So maybe that's what Republicans actually want. Perhaps they want to continue sowing chaos and subverting democracy. Perhaps Trump wants to start his own media company. Now there's a scary thought.