The freewheeling nature of online speech is under threat because of hostility to an important provision of a telecommunications law from politicians on both the left and the right, according to a new study published today by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The law, known as Section 230, was passed as part of the Telecommunications Decency Act of 1996 and is intended to clarify liability rules online and encourage websites to create their own content moderation rules and curate their platforms accordingly.
“Preserving Section 230 Is Key to Maintaining the Free and Open Internet,” authored by director of CEI’s Center for Technology and Innovation Jessica Melugin, explains why changing or repealing Section 230 would harm consumers, innovation, and speech.
“The twenty-six words that created the Internet,” as Section 230 is often called, ensure that the person posting content online is liable for that message and not the platform or website on which it was posted. For example, if President Joe Biden tweets something, he, not Twitter, is legally responsible for the message. But claims of political bias from the right and assertions platforms are rife with harmful misinformation from the left have put Section 230 in the crosshairs of politicians seeking to curtail or repeal the law.
Proposals from the left advocate repealing or curtailing Section 230 because removing online platforms’ liability protections for defamatory content will create incentives for platforms to remove more content than they already do, out of fear of excessive litigation. The left aims to tip the scales in favor of removing content some on their side of the political spectrum find objectionable.
Calls for regulation from the right are born from frustration among conservatives that platforms are biased in favor of speech from the left and use their content moderation powers to restrict the ability of the right to share its message. Support for repealing or curtailing Section 230 protections would open social media platforms accused of bias to more liability claims, but counter to the stated goals of conservatives seeking change, platforms under increased liability threats would take down more content, not less.
The next generation of social media is already taking shape in the form of decentralized offerings, like Mastodon and Steem. These platforms have a different infrastructure with no central server, working similarly to, but not exactly like, the music sharing service Napster did.
“Repealing or altering Section 230 would harm consumers, impede innovation, and further restrict freedom of speech,” said Melugin. “The next generation of social media is already taking root in the form of decentralized offerings where users themselves, instead of a central authority, engage in content moderation. Politicians and regulators should stop pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach to online speech and let innovators working in the free market find solutions to the challenge of protecting online speech.”
CEI also released a new 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.
For more information on CEI’s position on the importance of preserving Section 230 protections, please visit cei.org.
- Melugin for Fortune: Don’t Put Big Tech or Big Government in Charge of the Truth
- Melugin for National Review: Should Social-Media Companies Be Considered ‘Common Carriers’?