Section 230 has become a hot-button issue in the world of politics and beyond. Newly elected President Biden claimed on the campaign trail that he would revoke Section 230 if elected. The need for the elimination of this portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act was one of the few things he and his former opponent, Donald Trump, agreed on. But what is Section 230 and how does it affect journalism?
Simplifying Section 230
Picture this: Your arch-nemesis defames you on Twitter and you decide you want to bring the case to court. You might be able to sue your arch-nemesis for his nasty writing on social media, but you cannot sue the platform itself. Twitter is safeguarded by Section 230 of the CDA. The law’s ultimate purpose is to protect online platforms from their own users, or more specifically, to prevent platforms from being liable for the actions of their users. Without this protection companies would be held legally responsible for EVERYTHING people say, and they would face legal risks for enforcing community standards or voluntarily restricting access to content.
Every time you share an ideologically divisive meme, you are benefiting from Section 230. For every uncensored, heated political debate that you watch play out on your Reddit feed, you have Section 230 to thank. This one act facilitated the transfer of the marketplace of ideas from the public square to the screen in your pocket. For this reason, it’s often considered the single most-important piece of legislation that helped innovate the Internet.
Reform, revoke, or leave be?
What are the motives for those who advocate the revocation of Section 230? President Biden doesn’t think sites like Facebook “are doing enough to censor false and hateful content.” Law professor Scot Powe called it a “get- out-of-court-free” card for tech companies. Republican Senator Ted Cruz characterized tech companies’ protections under Section 230 as “the single biggest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.” The general consensus among adversaries of the legal provision is that it doesn’t do enough to hold platforms accountable.
There are others who take a more moderate approach, like law professor David A. Anderson. While he admits that the provision has its flaws, he believes the solution is reform rather than complete revocation. He said, “In my opinion, Sec. 230 definitely needs to be limited, but how to do that without killing a lot of useful communication is very difficult. It would require some extensive hearings, careful drafting, and contentious trade-offs.” He suggests that at the bare minimum, platforms should be held accountable for posts that cause physical harm.
When the Department of Justice proposed changes to Section 230, those who saw the value in keeping the law as-is spoke out against the plans. Internet Association’s Elizabeth Banker claimed that the changes “would severely limit people’s ability to express themselves and have a safe experience online,” warning of new legal restrictions and requirements on every content decision. Though added restrictions are theoretically targeting big tech companies, small start-ups are among those who would suffer the most. Having fewer resources to fulfill content-editing requirements makes them vulnerable to costly litigation.
The relationship between journalism and Section 230
So, what does all of this mean for journalism? As long as Section 230 is still standing, journalists can upload stories and tweet news without having to go through an approval process. If companies were liable for everything posted on their sites, journalists would be forced into a waiting game while site moderators review thousands of would-be posts. At this moment in history, journalists don’t have to wait for a green light. Information can be shared instantly, which means media users can be educated on world events and important issues sooner rather than later.
Considering that the advent of the Internet has given rise to citizen journalism, restricting what can be posted on the Internet could damage this new line of reporting. Many major news events are livestreamed or tweeted in real-time. Without the protections provided by Section 230, a world can be imagined where only Twitter users with the magic “blue check mark” are permitted to post without editorial review. The power is taken from the people and put in the hands of the publisher to the detriment of the marketplace of ideas.