Maybe you’ve heard about “Section 230” on the news, or through social media channels, or perhaps by reading a little about it through an article written by a major publication … but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the information that you have received is necessarily accurate. I cannot count how many times over the last year I’ve seen what seems to be purposeful misstatements of the law … which then gets repeated over and over again – perhaps to fit some sort of political agenda. After all, each side of the isle so to speak is attacking the law, but curiously for different reasons. While I absolutely despise lumping people into categories, political or otherwise, the best way I can describe the ongoing debate is that the liberals believe that there is not enough censoring going on, and the conservatives think there is too much censorship going on. Meanwhile, you have the platforms hanging out in the middle often struggling to do more, with less…
In this article I will try to explain why I believe it is important that even lay people understand Section 230 and dispel some of the most common myths that continually spread throughout the Internet as gospel … even from our own Congressional representatives.
WHY LAY PEOPLE SHOULD CARE ABOUT SECTION 230
Not everyone who reads this will remember what it was like before the Internet. If you’re not, ask your elders what it was like to be “talked at” by your local television news station or news paper. There was no real open dialog absent face to face or over the telephone communications. Your audience was limited in who you would get to share information with. Even if you wrote a “letter to the Editor” at a local newspaper it didn’t mean that your “opinion” was necessarily going to be posted. If you wanted to share a picture, you had to actually use a camera and film, take it to a developer, wait two weeks, pay for the developing and pray that your pictures didn’t suck. Can’t tell you how many blurry photographs I have in a shoe box somewhere. Then you had to mail, hand out, or show your friends in person. And don’t even get me started about a phone that was stuck to the wall and your “privacy” was limited to having a long phone chord that might stretch into the bathroom so you could shut the door. If you’re old end enough to remember that, and are nodding your head in agreement … I encourage you to spend some time remembering what that was like. It seems that us non-digital natives are at a point in life that we take the technology we have for granted; and the digital natives (meaning they were born with all of this technology) don’t really know the struggles of life without it.
If you like being able to share information freely, and to comment on information freely, you absolutely should care about what many refer to as “Section 230.” So many of my friends, family and colleagues say “I don’t understand Section 230 and I don’t care to … that’s your space” yet these are the people that I see posting content online about their business via LinkedIn or other social media platforms, sharing reviews of businesses they have been to, looking up information on Wikimedia, sharing their general opinion and/or otherwise dialog and debate over topics that are important to them, etc. In a large way, whether you know it or not, Section 230 has powered your ability to interact online in this way and has drastically shaped the Internet as we know it today.
IN GENERAL: SECTION 230 EXPLAINED
The Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) (often referred to as “Section 230” or “CDA” or even “CDA 230”), in brief, is a federal law enacted in 1996 that, with a few exceptions carved out within the statute, protects the owners of websites/search engines/applications (each often synonymously referred to as “platforms”) from liability from third-party content. Generally speaking, if the platform didn’t actually create the content, they typically aren’t liable for it. Indeed, there are a few exceptions, but for now, we’ll keep this simple. Platforms that allow interactive third-party content are often referred to as user generated content (“UGC”) sites. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Tripadvisor, and Yelp are all examples of such platforms and reasonable minds would likely agree that there is social utility behind each of these sites. That said, these household recognized platform “giants” aren’t the only platforms on the internet that have social utility and benefit from the CDA. Indeed, it covers all of the smaller platforms, including bloggers or journalists who desire to allow people to comment about articles/content on their websites. Suffice it to say, there are WAY more little guys than there are big guys, or “Big Tech” as some refer to it.
If you’re looking for some sort of a deep dive on the history of the law, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Jeff Kosseff’s book titled The Twenty-Six Words That Created The Internet. It’s a great read!
ONGOING “TECHLASH” WITH SECTION 230 IN THE CROSS-HAIRS
One would be entirely naïve to suggest that the Internet is perfect. If you ask me, it’s far from perfect. I readily concede that indeed there are harms that happen online. To be fair, harms happen offline too and they always have. Sometimes humans just suck. I’ve discussed a lot of this in my ongoing blog article series Fighting Fair on the Internet. What has been interesting to me is that many seem to want to blame people’s bad behavior on technology and to try and hold technology companies liable for what bad people do using their technology.
I look at technology as a tool. By analogy, a hammer is a tool yet we don’t hold the hammer manufacturing company or the store that sold the hammer to the consumer liable when a bad guy goes and beats someone to death with it. I imagine the counter-argument is that technology is in the best position to help stop the harms. Perhaps that may be true to a degree (and I believe many platforms do try to assist by moderating content and otherwise setting certain rules for their sites) but the question becomes, should they actually be liable? If you’re a Section 230 “purist” the answer is “No.” Why? Because Section 230 immunizes platforms from liability for the content that other people say or do on their platforms. Platforms are still liable for the content they choose to create and post or otherwise materially contribute to (but even that is getting into the weeds a little bit).
The government, however, seems to have its’ own set of ideas. We already saw an amendment to Section 230 with FOSTA (the anti-sex trafficking amendment). Unfortunately, good intentions often make for bad law, and, in my opinion, FOSTA was one of those laws which has been arguably proven to cause more harm than good. I could explain why, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.
Then, in February of 2020, the DOJ had a “workshop” on Section 230. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience in Washington, D.C. where it was held and recently wrote an article breaking down that “workshop.” If you’re interested in all the juicy details, feel free to read that article but in summary it basically was four hours’ worth of : humans are bad and do bad things; technology is a tool in which bad humans do bad things; technology/platforms need to find a way to solve the bad human problem or face liability for what bad humans occasionally do with the tools they create; we want to make changes to the law even though we have no empirical evidence to support the position that this is an epidemic rather than a minority…because bad people.
Shortly thereafter the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020 or EARN IT Act of 2019-2020 Bill was dropped which is designed to prevent the online sexual exploitation of children. While this sounds noble (FOSTA did too) when you unpack it all, and look at the bigger picture, it’s more government attempts to mess with free speech and online privacy/security in the form of yet another amendment to Section 230 under the guise of being “for the children.” I have lots of thoughts on this, but I will save this for another article another day too.
This brings us to the most recent attack on Section 230. The last two (2) weeks have been a “fun” time for those of us who care about Section 230 and its application. Remember how I mentioned above that some conservatives are of the opinion that there is too much censorship online? This often refers to the notion that social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and even Google) censor or otherwise block conservative speech. Setting aside whether this actually happens or not (I’ve heard arguments pointing both directions on this issue) President Trump shined a big light on this notion.
Let me first start off by saying that there is a ton of misinformation that is shared online. It doesn’t help that many people in society will quickly share things without actually reading it or conducting research to see if the content they are sharing has any validity to it but will spend 15 minutes taking a data mining quiz only to find out what kind of a potato they are. As a side note, I made that up in jest and then later found out that there is a quiz to find out what kind of potato you are. Who knew the 2006 movie Idiocracy was going to be so prophetic? Although, I can’t really say this is somehow just something that happens online? Anyone that ever survived junior high and high school knows that gossip is often riddled with misinformation and somehow we seem to forget about the silliness that happens offline too. The Internet, however, has just given the gossipers a megaphone … to the world.
Along with other perceived harmful content, platforms have been struggling with how to handle such misinformation. Some have considered adding more speech by way of notifications or “labels” as Twitter calls them, to advise their users that the information may be wholly made up or modified, shared in a deceptive manner, likely to impact public safety or otherwise cause serious harm. Best I could tell, at least as far as Twitter goes, this seems to be a relatively new effort. Other platforms like Facebook have apparently resorted to taking people’s accounts down, putting odd cover ups over photos, etc. on content they deem “unworthy” for their users. Side note: While ideal in a perfect world, I’m not personally a fan of social media platforms fact checking because: 1) it’s very hard to be an arbiter of truth; 2) it’s incredibly hard to do it at scale; 3) once you start, people will expect you to do it on every bit of content that goes out – and that’s virtually impossible; and 4) if you fail to fact check something that turns out to be false or otherwise misleading, one might assume that such content is accurate because they come to rely on the fact checking. And who checks the fact checkers? Not that my personal opinion matters, but I think this is where this bigger tech companies have created more problems for themselves (and arguably all the little sites that rely on Section 230 to operate without fear of liability).
So what kicked off the latest “Section 230 tirade”? Twitter “fact checked” President Trump in two different tweets on May 26th, 2020 by adding in a “label” to the bottom of the Tweets (which you have to click on to actually see – they don’t transfer when you embed them as I’ve done here) that said “Get the facts about mail-in-ballots.” This clearly suggests that Twitter was in disagreement with information that the President Tweeted and likely wanted its users to be aware of alternative views.
To me, that doesn’t seem that bad. I can absolutely see some validity to President Trump’s concern. I can also see an alternative argument, especially since I typically mail in my voting ballot. Either way, adding content in this way, versus taking it down altogether, seems like the route that provides people more information to consider for themselves, not less. In any event, if you think about it, pretty much everything that comes out of a politician’s mouth is subjective. Nevertheless, President Trump got upset over the situation and then suggested that Twitter was “completely stifling FREE SPEECH” and then made veiled threats about not allowing that to happen.
If we know anything about this President, it is that when he’s annoyed with something, he will take some sort of action. President Trump ultimately ended up signing an Executive Order on “Preventing Online Censorship” a mere two (2) days later. For those that are interested, while certainly left leaning, and non-favorable to our commander in chief, Santa Clara Law Professor Eric Goldman provided a great legal analysis of the Executive Order, calling it “political theater.” Even if you align yourself with the “conservative” base, I would encourage you to set aside the Professor’s personal opinions (we all have opinions) and focus on the meat of the legal argument. It’s good.
Of course, and as expected, the Internet looses its mind and all the legal scholars and practitioners come out of the woodwork, commenting on Section 230 and the newly signed Executive Order, myself included. The day after of the Executive Order was signed (and likely President Trump read all the criticisms) he Tweeted out “REVOKE 230!”
So this is where I have to sigh heavily. Indeed there is irony in the fact that the President is calling for the revocation of the very same law that allowed innovation and Twitter to even become a “thing” and which also makes it possible for him to reach out and connect to millions of people, in real time, in a pretty much unfiltered way as we’ve seen, for free because he has the application loaded on his smart phone. In my opinion, but for Section 230, it is entirely possible Twitter, Facebook and all the other forms of social media and interactive user sites would not exist today; at least not as we know it. Additionally, I find it ironic that President Trump is making free speech arguments when he’s commenting about, and on, a private platform. For those of you that slept through high school civics, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies … more about that later.
As I said though, this attack on Section 230 isn’t just stemming from the conservative side. Even Joe Biden has suggested that Section 230 should be “repealed immediately” but he’s on the whole social media companies censor too little train which is completely opposite of the reasons that people like President Trump wants it revoked.
HOW VERY AMERICAN OF US …
How many times have you heard that American’s are self-centered jerks? Well, Americans do love their Constitutional rights, especially when it comes to falling in love with their own opinions and the freedom to share those opinions. Moreover, when it comes to the whole content moderation and First Amendment debate, we often look at tech giants as purely American companies. True, these companies did develop here (arguably in large part thanks to Section 230) however, what many people fail to consider is that many of these platforms operate globally. As such, they are often trying to balance the rules and regulations of the U.S. with the rules and regulations of competing global interests.
As stated, Americans are very proud of the rights granted to them, including the First Amendment right to free speech (although after reading some opinions lately I’m beginning to wonder if half the population slept through or otherwise skipped high school civics class … or worse, slept through Constitutional Law while in law school). However, not all societies have this speech right. In fact, Europe’s laws value the privacy as a right, over the freedom of expression. A prime example of this playing out is Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten law. If you aren’t familiar, under this EU law, citizens can ask that even truthful information, but perhaps older, be taken down from the Internet (or in some cases not be indexed on EU search engines) or else the company hosting that information can face penalty.
When we demand that these tech giants cater to us, here in the United States, we are forgetting that these companies have other rules and regulations that they have to take into consideration when trying to set and implement standards for their users. What is good for us here in the U.S. may not be good for the rest of the world, which are also their customers.
SECTION 230 AND FIRST AMENDMENT MYTHS SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE
What has been most frustrating to me, as someone who practices law in this area and has a lot of knowledge when it comes to the business of operating platforms, content moderation, and the applicability of Section 230, is how many people who should know better get it wrong. I’m talking about our President, Congressional representatives, and media outlets … so many of them, getting it wrong. And what happens from there? You get other people who regurgitate the same uneducated or otherwise purposefully misstatements in articles that get shared which further perpetuates the ignorance of the law and how things actually work.
For example, just today (June 8, 2020) Jeff Kosseff Tweeted out a thread that describes a history of the New York Times failing to accurately explain Section 230 in various articles and how one of these articles ended up being quoted by a NJ federal judge. It’s a good thread. You should read it.
MYTH: A SITE IS EITHER A “PLATFORM” OR A “PUBLISHER”
Contrary to so many people I’ve listened to speak, or articles that I’ve read, when it comes to online UGC platforms, there is no distinction between “publisher” and a “platform.” You aren’t comparing the New York Times to Twitter. Working for a newspaper is not like working for a UGC platform. Those are entirely different business models … apples and oranges. Unfortunately, this is another spot where many people get caught up and confused.
UGC platforms are not in the business of creating content themselves but rather in the business of setting their own rules and allowing third-parties (i.e., you and I here on this platform) to post content in accordance with those rules. Even for those who point to some publications erring on the side of caution on 2006-2008 re editing UGC comments doesn’t mean that’s how the law actually was interpreted. We have decades worth of jurisprudence interpreting Section 230 (which is what the judicial branch does – interprets the law, not the FCC which is an independent organization overseen by Congress). UPDATE 1/5/2021 – although now there is debate on whether or not they can and as of October 21, 2020 the FCC seems to think they do have such right to interpret it. Platforms absolutely have the right to moderate the content which they did not create and kick people off of their platform for violation of their rules.
Think if it this way – have you ever heard your parents say (or maybe you’ve said this to your own kids) “My house, my rules. If you don’t like the rules, get your own house.” If anyone actually researches the history, that’s why Section 230 was created … to remove the moderator’s dilemma. A platform’s choice of what to allow, or disallow, has no bearing (for the sake of this argument here) on the applicability of Section 230. Arguably, UGC platforms also have a First Amendment right to choose what they want to publish, or not publish. So even without Section 230, they could still get rid of content they didn’t deem appropriate for their users/mission/business model.
MYTH: PLATFORMS HAVE TO BE NEUTRAL FOR SECTION 230 TO APPLY
Contrary to the misinformation being spewed all over (including by government representatives – which I find disappointing) Section 230 has never had a “neutrality” caveat for protection. Moreover, in the context of the issue of political speech, Senator Ron Wyden, who was a co-author for the law even stated recently on Twitter “let me make this clear: there is nothing in the law about political neutrality.”
You can’t get much closer to understanding Congressional intent of the law than getting words directly from the co-author of the law.
Quite frankly, there is no such thing as a “neutral platform.” That’s like saying a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger. Respectfully, some cheeseburgers from certain restaurants are just way better than others. Moreover, if we limited content on platforms to only what is lawful, i.e., a common carrier approach where the platforms would be forced to treat all legal content equally and refrain from discrimination, as someone that deals with content escalations for platforms, I can tell you that we would have a very UGLY Internet because sometimes people just suck or their idea of a good time and funny isn’t exactly age appropriate for all views/users.
MYTH: CENSORSHIP OF SPEECH BY A PLATFORM VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT
The First Amendment absolutely protects the freedom of speech. In theory, you are free to put on a sandwich board that says (insert whatever you take issue with) and walk up and down the street if you want. In fact, we’re seeing such constitutionally protected demonstrations currently with the protesters all over the country in connection to the death of George Floyd. Peaceful demonstration (and yes, I agree, not all of that was “peaceful”) is absolutely protected under the First Amendment.
What the First Amendment does not do (and this seems to get lost on people for some reason) is give one the right to amplification of that speech on a private platform. One might wish that were the case, but wishful thinking does equal law. Unless and until there is some law, that passes judicial scrutiny, which deems these private platforms a public square subject to the same restrictions that is imposed on the government, they absolutely do not have to let you say everything and anything you want. Chances are, this is also explained in their Terms of Service, which you probably didn’t read, but you should.
If you’re going to listen to anyone provide an opinion on Section 230, perhaps one would want to listen to a co-author of the law itself:
Think of it this way, if you are a bar owner and you have a drunk and disorderly guy in you bar that is clearly annoying your other customers, would you want the ability to 86 the person or do you want the government to tell you that as long as you are open to the public you have to let that person stay in your bar even if you risk losing other customers because someone is being obnoxious? Of course you want to be able to bounce that person out! It’s not really any different for platform operators.
So for all of you chanting about how a platforms censorship of your speech on their platform is impacting your freedom of speech – you don’t understand the plain language of the First Amendment. The law is “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” not “any person or entity shall make no rule abridging the freedom of speech…”, which is what people seem to think the First Amendment says or otherwise wants the law to say.
LET’S KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING BUT NOT MAKE RASH DECISIONS
Do platforms have the best of both worlds … perhaps. But what is worse? The way it is now with Section 230 or what it would be like without Section 230? Frankly, I choose a world with Section 230. Without Section 230, the Internet as we know it will change.
While we’ve never seen what the Internet looks like without Section 230 I can imagine we would go to one of two options: 1) an Internet where platforms are afraid to moderate content and therefore everything and anything would go up, leaving us with a very ugly Internet (because people are unfathomably rude and disgusting – I mean, content moderators have suffered from PTSD for having to look at what nasty humans try to share); or 2) an Internet where platforms are afraid of liability and either UGC sites will cease to exist altogether or they may go to a notice and take down model where as soon a someone sees something they are offended by or otherwise don’t like, they will tell the platform the information is false, defamatory, harassing, etc. and that content would likely automatically come down. The Internet, and public discussion, will be at the whim of a heckler’s veto. You think speech is curtailed now? Just wait until the society of “everyone is offended” gets a hold of it.
As I mentioned to begin with, I don’t think that the Internet is perfect, but neither are humans and neither is life. While I believe there may be some concessions to be had, after in-depth studies and research (after all, we’ve only got some 24 years of data to work with and those first years really don’t count in my book) I think it foolish to be making rash decisions based upon political agendas. If the politicians want their own platform where they aren’t going to be “censored” and the people have ease of access to such information … create one! If people don’t like that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Google are censoring content … don’t use them or use them less. Spend your time and money with a platform that more aligns with your desires and beliefs. There isn’t one out there? Well, nothing is stopping you from creating your own version (albeit, I understand that it’s easier said than done … but there are platforms out there trying to make that move). That’s what is great about this country … we have the ability to innovate … we have options … well, at least for now.
Disclaimer: This is for general information purposes only and none of this is meant to be legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice.