Skip to main content

What is Section 230? Inside the legislation protecting social media

A little known piece of legislation called Section 230 is making headlines after President Donald Trump’s latest effort to repeal the legislation, demanding that Congress fold that repeal in with another round of stimulus checks, defense spending, and the massive bill that keeps the lights on in Washington D.C. It seems politicians are alwasy struggling to wrap their heads around social media and “Big Tech,” a silly term for the technology giants that have defined the modern era.

It’s not the first time Section 230 made waves, of course. Trump signed an executive order in May that targeted social media platforms and the content on their sites, aiming to remove the protections of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act. By repealing Section 230, social networks would be legally responsible for what people post on their platforms. The law that protects speech over the internet has been around for more than 20 years, but has been targeted by politicians of both major parties, including Democratic president-elect Joe Biden.

Here’s what you need to know about Section 230, including how it’s shaped the modern internet.

What is Section 230?

The Communications Decency Act was established as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, right as the internet was growing and expanding amid the first big tech boom of the 1990s. It was initially created to regulate pornographic material on the internet. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA) created Section 230 within the Communications Decency Act to protect speech on the internet. 

Long before social networking, Section 230 was meant to cover sites like news outlets with comment sections, online forums, and other websites where people could contribute their thoughts. Without Section 230, most of the sites we use today — including Google and Facebook — would not exist as we know them.

“It was very relevant 20 years ago for certain websites to happen,” said Zohar Levkovitz, CEO of anti online toxicity company L1ght. 

What protections does it provide?

Section 230 says: “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.”

The law protects websites from being liable if one of their users posts something illegal or controversial, so you can’t sue Twitter for a tweet someone posted, for example. 

Because it allows free expression without repercussion, these social platforms love Section 230 because they know they can’t be punished for any inappropriate comment. However, these sites still regulate content such as hate speech, violent threats, terrorism, harassment, and more since they are private companies. 

This law has been essential to creating social media as it currently exists since it allows people to converse freely, post creative works, and contribute information across platforms.

On the flip side, Section 230 is partially responsible for allowing social networks to become breeding grounds for cyberbullying, hate speech, conspiracy theories, misinformation, harassment, threatening language, and more.

Can Trump’s executive order repeal Section 230? 

Trump’s executive order to repeal Section 230 wouldn’t magically make that piece of legislation gone forever. Companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google would undoubtedly fight the order, and it would take a long time for a decision in the federal court system. Ultimately, only Congress has the power to change statutes.

Aside from Trump, other politicians such as Biden and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) have also called for changing the legislation. 

Levkovitz says that although he disagrees with Trump’s motivation on the executive order, it is a step toward discussing potentially harmful content on these sites. 

“I’m not sure this executive order is the right thing, but let’s use this to start a conversation about how we can solve this problem in the industry,” he said. 

What would happen if Section 230 went away? 

Many opponents of repealing of Section 230 argue that it would remove free speech on the internet and break the internet as we know it.

Tech companies don’t want to be sued, so if they were held liable for every tweet or post, those companies would likely review them for libelous material before they’re posted. Essentially, it would be the end of user-generated content on the social networks that rely on them. 

In theory, live-tweeting, for example, would become all but impossible, since Twitter moderators would have to look at each tweet before it is published. The same goes for every Facebook post or YouTube video — human beings or algorithms would have to review them before they go public. With billions of users and posts, that’s a gargantuan — if not impossible — task.

Editors' Recommendations

Allison Matyus
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Allison Matyus is a general news reporter at Digital Trends. She covers any and all tech news, including issues around social…
Practically every major social app has a Stories function now. This is why
instagram launches location stories to more users 1

When Snapchat introduced the ability to post disappearing text and media over half a decade ago, no one expected that a scruffy new startup’s headlining feature would end up consuming a row of space at the top of every other social platform in a few years. But that’s exactly what has happened.

Snapchat’s Stories has flourished into a social network staple, and now the world's biggest tech companies are clamoring to bake this breakout format into their offerings. Today, a familiar row of avatars sits above all else on some of the most popular apps. You can now post these ephemeral “Stories” on Twitter, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google (for publishers), and possibly even Spotify in the near future.

Read more
DOJ proposes legislation to gut Big Tech’s legal shield
disabled activists organize online social media

The Department of Justice (DOJ) unveiled legislation to radically reform Section 230 on Wednesday, September 23, which would strip many of the legal protections social media platforms and tech companies now have by making them liable for users' posts.

While the legislation is just a draft, the DOJ's suggestions focus on narrowing the criteria online platforms would need to meet to have liability protections and establish what type, if any, immunity platforms get for specific cases, according to CNBC.

Read more
Coca Cola gives up on social media advertising entirely
Coke Bottle Cap Red Background

Coca Cola said Friday that it will be removing its millions of dollars in advertising from all social media platforms completely for the next 30 days. The company said the move is not part of the growing number of advertisers boycotting Facebook over its content moderation policies, but "time to reassess our advertising policies to determine whether revisions are needed."

“There is no place for racism in the world and there is no place for racism on social media,” said Coca Cola CEO and Chairman James Quincey in a statement to CNBC.

Read more