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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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