The Law That Protects Social Media Companies is at Stake 2021


Key Takeaways

Discussions about changing or removing Section 230 have increased as government distrust of Big Tech heightens.Section 230 protects online platforms from being liable about what their users post.Changing or removing Section 230 would completely change our online experience on social media.   Getty Images

Section 230—the legislation that protects social media platforms—was discussed during a Wednesday hearing of Big Tech companies, and we should be paying attention because experts say the implications of changing or removing Section 230 would “burn the internet down.”

The CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter were grilled over their content moderation practices on Wednesday, according to USA Today. Many government officials blamed Section 230 as to why these companies get away with just about anything. While there have been talks about changing the law that protects websites from being liable for what their user's post for a while now, government officials are beginning to take serious steps that would change or remove Section 230. 

"We should also be mindful that undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in his prepared testimony.

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What is Section 230? 

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) is part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It was created when the internet was growing and expanding in the 1990s and was initially meant to regulate pornographic material. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA) created Section 230 within the CDA to protect speech on the internet.

Section 230 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.”

The 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 held partially responsible for allowing social networks to become breeding grounds for cyberbullying, hate speech, conspiracy theories, misinformation, harassment, and more.

What is the Future Without Section 230?

Experts say that there is a high degree of likelihood that changes to Section 230 will be made within the next year, but Republicans and Democrats can't agree on what those changes would be. 

“There may be broad consensus to reform section 230 but not broad consensus on how,” said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “Generally, Republicans want to keep more content up, and Democrats want to remove more content, so there's not an obvious zone of consensus about Section 230 reform.” 

He said that things like greater transparency of certain editorial practices or mandatory appeals for removal of content are some things both parties would most likely agree on when it comes to changing the law. 

“All the user-generated content that we produce and enjoy will go away, and in its place will be left a smaller universe of professionally produced content subject to paywalls."

Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during Wednesday's hearing that some updates to the law are in order.

“People want to know that companies are taking responsibility for combatting harmful content—especially illegal activity—on their platforms. They want to know that when platforms remove content, they are doing so fairly and transparently,” Zuckerberg said in his opening testimony on Wednesday. “Changing it is a significant decision. However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it's working as intended.”

Changing and updating the law is one thing, but there is another option government officials are looking at to solve their problems with Section 230: and that's to remove it altogether. 

“Trump and Biden have both said to revoke Section 230…basically to burn it to the ground and try again,” Goldman said. 

So what would our online world look like without the protections of Section 230? Goldman said that while the internet certainly won't go away, it would reconfigure into a small number of paywalled platforms. 

“All the user-generated content that we produce and enjoy will go away, and in its place will be left a smaller universe of professionally produced content subject to paywalls,” he said. 

Basically, Twitter would still be a thing, but instead of live-tweeting your thoughts, it might become a playground where corporate brands and celebrities or public figures tweet already approved content. 

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“Regulators will be thrilled since they will get rid of the accountability they are currently experiencing, but the rest of us would have lost something really valuable to our lives,” Goldman said. “They will burn the internet down.”

Goldman said if you don't want your online experience to change, you need to reach out to your local politicians. 

“The disconnect between what the regulators think we want and what we actually want as internet users have never been greater,” he said. “I encourage people to speak up about this and reach out to their public officials to pay attention. Government representatives want to intervene and take away one of the most important tools of our society.”