In 1996, several Internet lifetimes ago, Congress passed a bill called the Communications Decency Act (officially, it is Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996). The law was a somewhat ham-handed attempt at prohibiting the posting of indecent material online (big chunks of the law were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court). But one of the sections of the law that remained in force was Section 230. In many ways, Section 230 is the basis for the modern Internet.
Section 230 is short – only 26 words – but those 26 words are so important there has even been an entire book written about their implications. Section 230 says the following:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another content provider.”
The impetus for Section 230 was a string of court decisions where the owners of websites were being held liable for things posted by users of their websites. Section 230 stepped in to provide near-absolute immunity for website owners. Think of it as the “don’t shoot the messenger” defense. Without Section 230, websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube probably wouldn’t exist. And most newspapers and online publications probably wouldn’t let users post comments. Without Section 230, the Internet would look very different. Some might argue we’d be better off without it. But the protections of Section 230 extend to many information companies as well.
That’s because Section 230 also provides strong legal protection for online ratings and reviews. Without Section 230, sites as varied as Yelp, TripAdvisor and even Wikipedia might find it difficult to operate. Indeed, all crowdsourced data sites would instantly become very risky to operate.
The reason that Section 230 is in the news right now is that it also provides strong protection to sites that traffic in hateful and violent speech. That’s why there are moves afoot to change or even repeal Section 230. Some of these actions are well intentioned. Others are blatantly political. But regardless of intent, these are actions that publishers need to watch, because if it becomes too risky to publish third-party content, the unintended consequences will be huge indeed.