Revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would change Wikipedia as we know it. And by “change,” we mean in the sense that a magnifying glass, the sun, and an eight-year-old kid hopped up on soda changes an ant colony.
Since President Donald Trump tweeted about a possible revocation of Section 230, the latest ramp-up in his war with social media companies, the tech world and its watchers have been buzzing about the ways in which this could fundamentally alter the internet. But although social media companies like Twitter may be Trump’s target, they’re far from the only ones who would be affected.
“[If we were to] live in a world where there is no Section 230 in the United States, that changes things drastically,” Sherwin Siy, the Wikimedia Foundation’s senior manager for public policy, told Digital Trends. “… It makes it a very different landscape. You’d see a lot of platforms being much more hesitant to allow users to publish things without any vetting. It would expose, for example, the Wikimedia Foundation to a lot more potential liability. It actually would just be a punishing amount of risk.”
Here’s how the passing of an obscure 1996 act changed the internet forever. And why, despite the problems it can occasionally provoke, scrapping Section 230 would irrevocably set back the online world decades — with the world’s biggest online encyclopedia being a notable casualty.
The 26 words that, in the words of cybersecurity law expert Jeff Kosseff, “created the internet” are actually kind of boring. At least, as far as their wording goes. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, drafted by a Californian Republican and Oregon Democrat, states that:
“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 1996, both the proposal of the act and its passing took place without much controversy. In a time before giant platforms like Google and Facebook, most of the concern about outsized influence on the future of the internet focused on carriers, cable providers, and phone companies. But just because people failed to identify the importance of Section 230 doesn’t mean that it was insignificant. As Kosseff points out in his book-length “biography of a law,” no act before or since has shaped the internet to a greater degree.
There are two main attributes to Section 230. The first is that, with a few criminal exceptions, internet service providers are not liable for whatever comments, images, videos or other material is posted on them. The second means that this shield of immunity covers providers even in the event that they choose to delete or edit some user content.
In 2020, it is frequently this second point that raises the ire of many who accuse certain tech companies of displaying a bias that skews the way they present information or, in some cases, even make it accessible at all. After all, how can one claim to be a neutral platform while also exercising control over what appears on it? There is probably a kernel of truth to this. But it’s also worth noting that the original idea of this proviso was one that many of those objecting today would have likely agreed with at the time: That moderating content such as pornography, violence, and offensive words and images would help create an internet safe for everyone to enjoy.
In the aftermath of Section 230’s signing, the world (wide web) witnessed the emergence of what the author and web designer Darcy DiNucci named Web 2.0. This participatory vision of what the internet could be was based around user-generated content. By putting the creative process in the hands of everyday users, Web 2.0 ushered in the likes of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and — crucially — Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is, perhaps, the Web 2.0 dream at its most pure. As Digital Trends has noted before, “With more than 100,000 editors working together to create and maintain millions of articles in hundreds of languages, Wikipedia has a good claim to being the greatest large-scale collaborative project in human history.”
Created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, Wikipedia was imagined as an encyclopedia that anyone could edit so long as they abided by the rules. The two main rules were verifiability (Wikipedia was built around citations, rather than original research) and a neutral point of view for its articles. Beyond this, users were free to act. The concept took off like crazy. By the end of its first month, Wikipedia had 600 articles. By the middle of the following month, there were 1,000. By the start of 2002, there were 20,000. Today, English language Wikipedia has more than 6 million articles with approximately 599 new ones added every day. Around 1.9 edits are made every single second by volunteer editors from all around the world. The world’s biggest traditional publishers couldn’t hope to compete with that kind of schedule.
Section 230 is what makes this possible. While it’s guided by principles — and aided by helpful bots to avoid things like vandalism — Wikipedia relies on its status as a platform to allow it to function. If it was legally responsible for everything published upon it, at best it would function a lot more slowly — and be far more costly to run. At worst, it couldn’t exist at all.
“I think one of the things that’s [really] different about [Wikipedia] is that the center is a little bit more diffuse,” Siy said. “The vast majority of moderation is done by peer users and other users who have been voted greater administrative powers by their fellow users. So it’s one of those things where if you’re looking for the person who’s actually taking action [in making an edit], it’s usually not the foundation at the center. We have the servers, we run the software, but we don’t do that much content moderation. I won’t say we do none, because if we get a DMCA takedown request, or we get a court order, we’ll process that. If somebody reports a trust and safety issue that somebody’s post shows a credible threat to life and safety, then we’ll take action. But those are very rare.”
Over the years, Wikipedia has relied on its Section 230 immunity a few times. In 2005, John Seigenthaler, an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, took umbrage after a Wikipedia article was modified to state that, “for a short time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” Seigenthaler — who passed away in 2014 at the age of 86 — contacted Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales when he was alerted about the claims. Wales deleted the reference immediately.
However, Seigenthaler later wrote of his upset that: “For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history.” In the pages of USA Today, he complained that Section 230 was at least partly to blame; one of the first times this was raised in a public forum. “That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others,” he noted.
There have been other instances in which users have been upset at the way they are presented in articles, and sometimes the citations accepted as evidence of this information. When a New Jersey-based literary agent named the Wikimedia Foundation in a lawsuit for “defamation and tortious interference” after the way she was referenced in an article, Wikipedia hit back at claims that articles written by contributors could be read as “statements” from the organization.
In a motion to dismiss the case, the Wikimedia Foundation wrote that, “Such an allegation would be inconsistent with the basic nature of [Wikipedia] … [which] is written and edited by its users.” Ultimately, the case was dropped due to the Communications Decency Act.
Wikipedia is not perfect, of course. There is something that smacks of the utopian about the notion that millions of people from around the world can join together to create a sum total of human knowledge without the problems that make humanity, well, humanity. Anti-vandalism bots can be better. Citations can be better. And people, as much as their individual bad behavior may be smoothed out by the homogenizing effect of the crowd, can be better.
The internet has changed plenty since 1996, when it had approximately 40 million users worldwide: Coincidentally, roughly the number of Wikipedia accounts that exist in 2020. Old rules must be reexamined to make sure that they offer the right protections a quarter-century after they were created. But the idea that Section 230 should be abolished for the good of the internet is simply untrue. Unless you’re happy to lose Wikipedia and the majority of the world’s most popular websites in the process.
Whichever side of the aisle you might be on, don’t think that it would only affect the bottom line of a few trillion dollar tech giants with cash to spare. That’s an idea that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a Wikipedia editor might write: “Citation needed.”