If you tear the tag off of a mattress you’ll go to federal prison! If you ask that drug dealer/prostitute if they’re actually a cop, they have to answer truthfully! Hate speech is not free speech! This is clearly RICO! Anyone who talks about somebody else’s health is violating HIPAA!
These are popular examples of legal urban legends, tall tales, and popular misconceptions. They’re all insignificant next to the relentless — and frighteningly effective — propaganda surrounding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Very simply put, Section 230 is the law that says that, if I post something defamatory on Twitter, the victim can sue me, but not Twitter. It also says, again put simply, that Twitter has the right to moderate stuff on its site as it sees fit. The language of Section 230 is fairly clear, for something written by Congress. There is very little controversy amongst actual courts about what it means. The legal impact of Section 230 has been well-established by courts for decades, and efforts to evade it have been consistently rejected.
Nonetheless, in Congress and on television and on the internet, accurate descriptions of what Section 230 says, and what it does, are usually overwhelmed by misconceptions (the charitable interpretation) or lies and propaganda (the more accurate one). Some of the most prominent politicians in the country — notably Senator Ted Cruz — routinely lie to the public about what the law says and how courts have interpreted it. Among the most common lies: Section 230 requires sites to choose between being a “platform” or “publisher”, Section 230 requires sites to moderate content in a neutral fashion, Section 230 is some sort of “gift” to the tech industry, and sites lose Section 230 protections if they demonstrate a viewpoint. These are not just different takes on the law, or arguable interpretations. These are flat-out lies. Section 230 doesn’t say any of that and every court to rule has rejected those hot takes.
Will I explain all of Section 230 to you today? No. But I will give you clear, accurate, reliable resources you can read to understand it. Here they are:
“Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” Mike Masnick of Techdirt is such a tech-law-journalism OG that he coined the term “Streisand Effect.” This review of common propaganda and false tropes about Section 230 is accurate and entertaining, even if he did steal my bit.
“The Internet’s Most Important and Misunderstood Law, Explained.” Timothy Lee is another essential journalist for anyone interested in the intersection of technology, law, and culture, and this piece explains Section 230 in the context of political efforts to amend it and/or lie about it.
“No, Section 230 Does Not Require Platforms To Be ‘Neutral'”: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has an office with beer and dogs and is admirable on that basis alone, has extensive helpful resources about Section 230, but this article is particularly good in shooting down common propaganda about it.
“Politicians Want To Destroy Section 230, The Internet’s First Amendment.” Several writers at Reason, particularly Elizabeth Nolan Brown, have done great work refuting anti-Section-230 propaganda and explaining why it’s so important.
Professor Eric Goldman On Section 230: Prof. Eric Goldman, who writes at the Technology & Marketing Blog, is probably the preeminent legal scholar on Section 230. Once you feel you have a better grasp of the basics, he’s the go-to guy on understanding how courts have interpreted Section 230, and monitoring the developments in the law about it — and seeing that those developments are all consistently refuting the propaganda about what it says and does. If you’d like to listen to him, I interviewed him on this subject on my First Amendment podcast, Make No Law.
In short: Section 230 is very important to how the internet works. It is essential to having sites that feature comments from users. And people are absolutely flat-out lying to you about what it says, and what it means, for political advantage. It would be quite different if these people were arguing, openly and honestly, about how Section 230 should be amended to enact the policies (many of them unconstitutional, but that’s another post) they want. But they’re not. They’re just lying to you about what it says and does now. Educate yourself.