WASHINGTON, August 20, 2019 — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been termed one of the most important and most misunderstood laws governing the internet.
In recent months, prominent critics from both sides of the aisle have called for the statute to either be repealed or altered so significantly that, if enacted, it would no longer serve its original purpose.
Sen Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced a bill that would eliminate Section 230 protections for big tech platforms unless they could prove their political neutrality to the Federal Trade Commission every two years. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has called for the statute to be repealed altogether.
But any such proposal should first carefully consider Section 230’s unique role in the digital ecosystem.
The concept behind Section 230 has its origins in the First Amendment
The statute’s basic premise — protecting the rights of speakers by limiting the liability of third parties who enable them to reach an audience — is hardly new; the First Amendment has served that purpose for decades.
In the 1959 case Smith v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that booksellers could not be held liable for obscene content in the books being sold, because the resulting confusion and caution would lead to over-enforcement, or “censorship affecting the whole public.”
Five years later, the court ruled in New York Times Co v. Sullivan that failing to protect newspapers from liability for third party advertisements would discourage them from doing so, and therefore shut off “an important outlet for the promulgation of information and ideas by persons who do not themselves have access to publishing facilities.”
“In theory, the First Amendment — the global bellwether protection for free speech — should partially or substantially backfill any reductions in Section 230’s coverage,” wrote Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, in an April blog post. “In practice, the First Amendment does no such thing.”
In a paper titled “Why Section 230 Is Better Than the First Amendment,” Goldman explained some of the “significant and irreplaceable substantive and procedural benefits” that are unique to the controversial statute.
Section 230 has pragmatic applications for a range of legal claims
For one, Section 230 has pragmatic applications for defamation, negligence, deceptive trade practices, false advertising, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and dozens of other legal doctrines, some of which have little or no First Amendment defense.
In addition, Section 230 offers more procedural protections and greater legal certainty for defendants. It enables early dismissals, which can save smaller services from financial ruin. It is more predictable than the First Amendment for litigants. It preempts conflicting state laws and facilitates constitutional avoidance.
Most major tech platforms support Section 230, and experts widely agree that the internet would not have been able to develop without the protection of such a law.
“If we were held liable for everything that the users potentially posted…we fundamentally would not be able to exist,” said Jessica Ashooh, Reddit’s director of policy, at a July forum.
But also in July, one prominent tech company broke with the others to support a “reasonable care” standard like that proposed by Danielle Citron and Benjamin Wittes, law professors at the University of Maryland. IBM Executive Ryan Hagemann wrote in a blog post that this “would provide strong incentives for companies to limit illegal and illicit behavior online, while also being flexible enough to promote continued online innovation.”
Should online platforms be responsible for deleting objectively harmful content?
Companies should be held legally responsible for quickly identifying and deleting content such as child pornography or the promotion of mass violence or suicide, Hagemann continued. Adding this standard to Section 230 “would add a measure of legal responsibility to what many platforms are already doing voluntarily.”
But Goldman took a different tack. He strongly cautioned against proposals offering Section 230 protections only to defendants who were acting in so-called good faith, warning that “such amorphous eligibility standards would negate or completely eliminate Section 230’s procedural benefits.”
Hagemann, on the other hand, has defended the importance of a compromise-oriented middle ground. Current rhetoric from Congress suggests that changes to the statue are imminent, he said at a panel two weeks after IBM’s statement, and finding a compromise will prevent an extreme knee-jerk reaction from lawmakers who may not view the digital economy with the necessary nuance.
Senators Cruz and Hawley are gunning for effective repeal of Section 230
And as feared, members of Congress such as Cruz and Hawley have skipped right over compromise and started calling for the complete evisceration of Section 230.
Few would claim that Section 230 is perfect; it was written for a digital landscape that has since evolved in previously unimaginable ways. But allowing a body of five commissioners to determine the vague standard of “politically neutral” every two years would almost certainly lead to extreme inconsistency and partisanship.
Moreover, some fear that — contrary to Hawley’s stated intent — his bill might actually be the one thing that cements the major tech giants in their current place of power.
“Even if its initial application were limited to websites above a certain size threshold, that threshold would be inherently arbitrary and calls to lower it to cover more websites would be inevitable,” said TechFreedom President Berin Szóka.
Rather than keeping tech giants like Facebook and Google in check, conditioning Section 230 protections on perceived neutrality could actually benefit them by stifling any potential competition.
“At a time when we’re talking about antitrust investigations and we’re wondering if the biggest players are too big, the last thing we want to do is make a law that makes it harder for smaller companies to compete,” said Ashooh of Reddit.
“Admittedly, it feels strange to tout Section 230’s pro-competitive effect in light of the dominant marketplace positions of the current Internet giants, who acquired their dominant position in part due to Section 230 immunity,” wrote Goldman. “At the same time, it’s likely short-sighted to assume that the Internet industry has reached an immutable configuration of incumbents.”
Other articles in this series:
Section I: The Communications Decency Act is Born