What’s Behind the Fight Over Section 230

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Today there is yet another congressional hearing about an internet law that is older than Google: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Please don’t stop reading.

Odds are the law won’t change. But it’s still worth talking about Section 230 because it’s a stand-in for big questions: Is more speech better, and who gets to decide? Shouldn’t we do something about giant internet companies? And who is responsible when bad things that happen online lead to people being hurt or even killed?

Let me try to explain what the law is, what’s really at stake and the proposals to fix it.

What is Section 230 again? The 26-word law allows websites to make rules about what people can or can’t post without being held legally responsible (for the most part) for the content.

If I accuse you of murder on Facebook, you might be able to sue me, but you can’t sue Facebook. If you buy a defective toy from a merchant on Amazon, you might be able to take the seller to court, but not Amazon. (There is some legal debate about this, but you get the gist.)

The law created the conditions for Facebook, Yelp and Airbnb to give people a voice without being sued out of existence. But now Republicans and Democrats are asking whether the law gives tech companies either too much power or too little responsibility for what happens under their watch.

Generally, Republicans worry that Section 230 gives internet companies too much leeway to suppress what people say online. Democrats believe that it gives internet companies a pass for failing to effectively stop illegal drug sales or prevent extremists from organizing violence.

What the fight is about, really: Everything. Our anxieties are now projected on those 26 words.

Section 230 is a proxy fight for our discomfort with Facebook and Twitter having the power to silence the president of the United States or a high school student who has nowhere else to turn. The fight over the law reflects our fears that people can lie online seemingly without consequences. And it’s about a desire to hold people accountable when what happens online causes irreparable damage.

It makes sense to ask whether Section 230 removes the incentives for online companies to put measures in place that would stop people from smearing those they don’t like or block the channels that facilitate drug sales. And likewise, it’s reasonable to ask if the real issue is that people want someone, anyone — a broken law or an unscrupulous internet company — to blame for the bad things that humans do to one another.

One topic of the congressional hearing on Thursday is the many proposed bills to amend Section 230, mostly around the edges. My colleague David McCabe helped me categorize the proposals into two (somewhat overlapping) buckets.

Fix-it Plan 1: Raise the bar. Some lawmakers want online companies to meet certain conditions before they get the legal protections of Section 230.

One example: A congressional proposal would require internet companies to report to law enforcement when they believe people might be plotting violent crimes or drug offenses. If the companies don’t do so, they might lose the legal protections of Section 230 and the floodgates could open to lawsuits.

Facebook this week backed a similar idea, which proposed that it and other big online companies would have to have systems in place for identifying and removing potentially illegal material.

Another proposed bill would require Facebook, Google and others to prove that they hadn’t exhibited political bias in removing a post. Some Republicans say that Section 230 requires websites to be politically neutral. That’s not true.

Fix-it Plan 2: Create more exceptions. One proposal would restrict internet companies from using Section 230 as a defense in legal cases involving activity like civil rights violations, harassment and wrongful death. Another proposes letting people sue internet companies if child sexual abuse imagery is spread on their sites.

Also in this category are legal questions about whether Section 230 applies to the involvement of an internet company’s own computer systems. When Facebook’s algorithms helped circulate propaganda from Hamas, as David detailed in an article, some legal experts and lawmakers said that Section 230 legal protections should not have applied and that the company should have been held complicit in terrorist acts.

(Slate has detailed all of the proposed bills to change Section 230.)

It’s undeniable that by connecting the world, the internet as we know it has empowered people to do a lot of good — and a lot of harm. The fight over this law contains multitudes. “It comes out of frustration, all of this,” David told me.



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