If you have been paying attention to the debate over online speech and conservative censorship, you have probably heard about Section 230.
Section 230 was once a little-known piece of telecommunications law, but it always had large importance, allowing the internet as we know it to exist today. It reads:
(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker- 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.
(2) Civil liability- No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of: (A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
Section 230 breaks down into two basic parts:
1. Section 1 means that an interactive computer service, which is just a fancy name for a website, that hosts user generated content isn’t treated as the speaker of that content. This means Facebook isn’t legally responsible for your Facebook post, Twitter for your tweets, or Fox News for your comments below a news story.
2. Section 2 strengthens Section 1 by further clarifying that even if content is protected by the First Amendment, websites can use their discretion to edit or remove this content. This makes crystal clear that companies can moderate their platforms as they see fit without the threat of lawsuits. So, if I want to run a website all about college football and restrict political speech, I can do so, even though political speech is constitutionally protected.
- Users of computer services or platforms are responsible for what they post, not the websites.
- Websites can remove or restrict user generated content how they see fit. They can do this without being considered a speaker of content or responsible for what content they decide to allow.
Section 230 protects our ability to speak online. If websites were legally responsible for the content they hosted, they would remove a whole lot more of it than they do now. While there are rightful criticisms of conservative censorship, removing Section 230 would make it worse, not better. Additionally, it allows the websites we like to remove speech we don’t want to see. There is nothing worse than getting SPAM for Alabama fans on our LSU fan pages. An LSU fan page should be able to be reserved for LSU fans only.
COMMON MYTHS ABOUT SECTION 230
1. Section 230 means when a website moderates or edits content, it becomes a publisher like a newspaper and no longer has Section 230 protection.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. Section 230 was expressly written to protect the ability of websites to edit and remove content without being regulated like a newspaper. Newspapers only publish a limited amount of content per day and decide what runs on their pages. Meanwhile social media sees billions of posts each day and companies don’t review posts beforehand. If they had to do this, websites wouldn’t allow most content. But, it is true that websites are responsible for content they create. So, if a website wrote a post, a “fact check” for instance, it would be legally liable for the content written. Section 230 protections would not apply!
2. Section 230 is a special exemption for large social media companies.
Section 230 applies to hundreds of thousands of websites- everything from Airbnb to eBay to your favorite sports websites. Without it, important parts of websites, like customer reviews of products and rentals, couldn’t exist. Section 230 even applies to traditional news websites like Fox News, The Daily Caller or The Hayride, but only the comments section where the users of the website create the content.
3. Section 230 allows social media to be biased against conservatives.
Even if Section 230 was repealed tomorrow, websites still have a First Amendment right to run their platforms as they see fit. This includes the ability to remove content they wouldn’t like on their websites. This works the same as a newspaper refusing to run your letter to the editor. But without Section 230, platforms could be held legally responsible for other kinds of speech they do allow. This would incentivize websites to remove more conservative speech, not less, since they would have to feature fewer political opinions overall on their pages. Section 230 protects conservative speech online.