How Section 230 set the standard for free speech online


Twenty-six words contained in the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act have allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the giants they are today.

A case the US Supreme Court heard on Tuesday, Gonzalez v. Google, challenges this law — namely whether tech companies are liable for content posted on their platforms.

Judges will decide whether the family of an American college student killed in a terrorist attack in Paris can sue Google, which owns YouTube, over claims that the video platform’s recommendation algorithm led extremists to their sites. helped spread the message.

Justices ‘totally confused’ during debate in Section 230 case against Google that could reshape internet

They seemed unlikely to side with the family, but indicated they were wary of Google’s claims that the law exempts it and other companies from lawsuits.

Twitter v. Tamneh, a second case being heard Wednesday, also focuses on liability, though on different grounds. The case involves family members of a man killed in an Istanbul nightclub attack that the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for.

The family has accused Twitter, Facebook and YouTube parent Google of aiding the growth of IS by recommending extremist content through its algorithms. The platforms argue that they cannot be sued because they did not knowingly or substantially aid the attack.

The results of these cases could reshape the Internet as we know it. Article 230 will not be done away with easily. But if it does, online discourse can be drastically altered.

What is Article 230?

If a news site calls you a deceptive liar, you can sue the publisher for defamation. But if someone posts it 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 treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” will go.”

That legal phrase protects companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued out of ignorance by anyone who feels wronged by something posted by someone else — whether their complaint is valid or not.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have argued, for different reasons, that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity — or at least meet government-mandated requirements. It should be earned by

Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts that, for example, are obscene or violate their standards of service, as long as they are acting in “good faith”. .

Section 230, which allows online platforms significant immunity with respect to users’ speech liability, has been challenged several times in the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Where did Article 230 come from?

The measure’s history dates back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were held liable for selling books containing “obscenity,” which is not protected by the First Amendment. One case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which said it created a “chilling effect” on holding someone responsible for someone else’s content.

That meant plaintiffs had to prove that bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, said Jeff Kosseff, author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a book about Section 230.

Fast-forward a few decades to when the commercial Internet was taking off with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offered online forums, but CompuServe chose not to operate one, while Prodigy, seeking a family-friendly image, did.

Kampusarva was tried, and the case was dismissed. Prodigy, however, ran into trouble. The judge in their case ruled that “they exercised editorial control — so you’re more like a newspaper than a newsstand,” Koseff said.

That didn’t sit well with politicians, who worried that the outcome would discourage fledgling Internet companies from regulating at all. And Article 230 was born.

“Today it protects users from liability for posts as well as any claims for moderating content,” Koseff said.

Trump has indicated that he will veto the defense bill unless the controversial Article 230 is repealed

What will happen if Article 230 is removed?

“The primary thing we do on the Internet is we talk to each other. It could be email, it could be social media, it could be message boards, but we talk to each other. . And many of these conversations are enabled by Section 230. , which says that whoever is allowing us to talk to each other is not responsible for our conversations,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University. said an expert in Internet law. “The Supreme Court could easily upset or eliminate that basic proposition and say that the people who allow us to talk to each other are responsible for those conversations. The moment they allow us to talk to each other. will not be allowed to talk.”

There are two possible outcomes. Platforms can be more cautious, as Craigslist did after the 2018 passage of the sex-trafficking law that created an exception to Section 230 for content that “promotes or facilitates prostitution.” Craigslist promptly removed its “Personals” section, which was not intended to facilitate sex work, entirely. But the company didn’t want to take any chances.

“If the platforms are not exempt under the law, they will not risk the legal liability that can come with hosting Donald Trump’s lies, defamation and threats,” said Kate Ruane, former senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. PEN for America.

Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms may abandon moderation altogether and let the lowest common denominator prevail.

Such unmonitored services can easily become dominated by trolls, such as 8chan, a site notorious for graphic and extremist content.

Any changes to Section 230 are likely to have an impact on online speech worldwide.

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“The rest of the world is cracking down on the Internet faster than the US,” Goldman said. “So we’re a step behind the rest of the world in terms of censoring the Internet. And the question is whether we can even stop ourselves.”

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