New CEI Video: Section 230, Explained

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The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) released a new policy video today, aiming to clarify the debate around Section 230 and to debunk some of the more pervasive myths about the consequences of altering it.

Starring Director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin, “Section 230, Explained” examines the heated debate over what many call “the twenty-six words that created the Internet” and explains why dialing back liability protections for websites or platforms would harm consumers and dampen innovation.

Section 230 Explained

The internet is a part of daily life for most Americans. We use it to work, shop, go to school, and, let’s be honest, waste a lot of time.

But did you know 26 words in a telecommunications law from 1996 made possible the Internet we all rely on today?

It’s called Section 230, and some loud critics on the left and right say that it’s time to reform or scrap it entirely.

They’re wrong, here’s why.

TITLE CARD: Section 2:30, Explained

Section 230 states: “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.”

Some people claim this introduces a distinction between a publisher and a platform, and that if a platform moderates user speech it becomes a publisher. But just the opposite is true: Section 230 says that if you post something on Facebook, tweet something on twitter, or leave a review on Amazon or Yelp, you’re responsible for it and the platform you used to do it, is not. And even if that platform hides your content or removes it for any reason, they don’t magically lose their Section 230 protection.

This simple provision allows the Internet to flourish. Blogs, review sites, and social media of every kind and size flourish because those platforms don’t have to worry about liability for their users’ content.

But critics on the right say Section 230 gives platforms too much power and enabled them to repress free speech, while critics on the left say Section 230 gives platforms too much protection for what they leave up.

So, let’s break it down.

Should online platforms be held liable for the content their users post?

Jessica Melugin: Social media is inherently different from other forms of publication. Moderation is incredibly difficult at the scale of global self-publishing. Twitter hosts 6,000 user-generated tweets a second. There’s no way to instantaneously and perfectly patrol that kind of volume, so liability costs would be devastating for the biggest platforms and prohibitive for start-ups.

And what about free speech?  Has Section 230 made it possible for Internet platforms to censor conservatives?

Melugin: Section 230 spares platforms from the cost of litigating every case, but it’s actually the First Amendment that allows platforms to remove content they don’t want to host. The flip side of the free speech coin is not being forced to carry speech against your will and platforms have that right under the First Amendment. If Section 230 were repealed tomorrow, platforms would still have the right to take down content. Actually, under a court case called Prodigy that helped spur the need for Section 230, it would be safer for them to take down far more content than they do today.

Should we scrap Section 230, and make social media platforms the public square?

Melugin: Regulating platforms like utilities, or “common carriers” to stop them from taking down content would lead to an Internet full of spam, unwanted and inappropriate content, and worse. Platforms need to curate their space to keep customers wanting to come back, advertisers wanting to advertise—and in the case of kid’s apps, parents feeling safe. 

Facebook, Yelp, Ebay, Zillow, Twitter, Amazon … Section 230 made the internet we all use possible. Tech companies don’t always get it right. But the answer to overzealous content moderation is more ideas and more competition, not less.

That’s why we need to keep Section 230. So that new tech companies can grow and innovate without fear of being sued. Give startups and new tech companies the same runway that companies like Facebook and Amazon enjoyed.

To learn more about Section 230, also see Jessica Melugin’s new paper.