In recent months, politicians have been discussing the possibility of changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. On Wednesday, October 16th, 2019, a Congressional hearing titled, “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers,” will discuss this very law and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (UFF) Legal Director Corynne McSherry will testify in support of Section 230, according to a press release by EFF.
So, what’s the deal with this Internet Speech law? It’s obvious that tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have been a huge topic of conversation in politics and in court. Many believe that social media companies need to be held accountable for the content users post and be barred from discriminating against political viewpoints. However, when taking a closer look at the purpose of Section 230 of the CDA, changing the law- or eliminating it altogether as some have suggested- may not be the solution.
Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act reads, “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” (47 U.S.C.§ 230). This grants Facebook and other tech companies immunity from the content published on their platforms because they are not publishers. Someone cannot sue Yelp for hosting a defamatory review on their platform because Section 230 gives them immunity, leaving the responsibility to the user who posted the review. The relevant exception here is the online platform engages in editorial acts and thereby becomes a content contributor (versus a content aggregator or host).
Now, as the 2020 election is approaching, politicians are concerned that social media platforms lack neutrality and discriminate against certain political viewpoints. On July 11th, 2019, the White House hosted a social media summit that focused on bias against conservatives, according to The New York Times. Suggested solutions to alleviate this political bias was to treat tech platforms as the publishers so they can be held responsible for suppressing conservative content. The problem is, Section 230 of the CDA does not force people or platforms to be politically neutral. It simply separates Internet platforms from Internet users, describing the users as the publishers of their own speech.
Section 230’s primary purpose is to cultivate and encourage moderation. In fact, eliminating this law would promote more censorship because if tech giants were held responsible for user generated content, it would motivate them to remove problematic content that they do not want to be held liable for.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri proposed a bill that would remove the immunity Section 230 provides for big tech companies and require them to submit bianuall audits to the FTC that would prove their content-removal process and algorithms are politically-neutral.
On the other hand, Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School, doesn’t think Hawley’s bill will promote political neutrality, but instead promote “false equivalencies” according to his blog post. Goldman touches on how not all political parties are equally legitimate, going on to say that promoting equality among all political parties would deem the American Nazi Party as equally legitimate as the Republican party.
It probably wouldn’t be the worst idea to discuss changing C.D.A. 230 because of the fact that it was created in 1996 and the Internet has changed dramatically since then. Facebook and Twitter were not even introduced until almost ten years later. In 1996, the Internet was just beginning to grow and now, it has flourished into an entirely new way to communicate, create, entertain, advertise and trade goods and services.
If you think back to when the radio was first introduced into society, the Federal Communications Commission enforced the Fairness Doctrine on the airwaves. This required broadcasters to air balanced opinions on political and controversial issues. However, the reason this was necessary was because with radio, there is a limited amount of air space for radio stations to exist. When it comes to the Internet on the other hand, there is an endless sea of possibilities.
What do you think? Should CDA 230 be changed or removed due to the growth of the Internet? Or should it remain the way it has always been?
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