US President Donald Trump is expected to order a review of a federal law known as Section 230, which protects internet companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet’s Google from being responsible for the material posted by users.
What is Section 230?
The core purpose of Section 230 is to protect the owners of any “interactive computer service” from liability for anything posted by third parties. The idea was that such protection was necessary to encourage the emergence of new types of communications and services at the dawn of the Internet era.
Section 230 was enacted in 1996 as part of a law called the Communications Decency Act, which was primarily aimed at curbing online pornography. Most of that law was struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, but Section 230 remains.
In practice, the law shields any website or service that hosts content - like news outlets’ comment sections, video services like YouTube and social media services like Facebook and Twitter - from lawsuits over content posted by users.
When the law was written, site owners worried they could be sued if they exercised any control over what appeared on their sites, so the law includes a provision that says that, so long as sites act in “good faith,” they can remove content that is offensive or otherwise objectionable.
The statute does not protect copyright violations or certain types of criminal acts. Users who post illegal content can themselves still be held liable in court.
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The technology industry and others have long held that Section 230 is crucial protection, though the statute has become increasingly controversial as the power of internet companies has grown.
What prompted the creation of Section 230?
In the early days of the Internet, there were several high-profile cases in which companies tried to suppress criticism by suing the owners of the platforms.
One famous case involved a lawsuit by Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage firm depicted in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” against the early online service Prodigy. The court found that Prodigy was liable for allegedly defamatory comments by a user because it was a publisher that moderated the content on the service.
The fledgling internet industry was worried that such liability would make a range of new services impossible. Congress ultimately agreed and included Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act.
What does Section 230 have to do with political bias?
President Trump and others who have attacked Section 230 say it has given big internet companies too much legal protection and allowed them to escape responsibility for their actions.
Some conservatives, including the president, have alleged that they are subject to online censorship on social media sites, a claim the companies have generally denied.
Section 230, which is often misinterpreted, does not require sites to be neutral. Most legal experts believe any effort to require political neutrality by social media companies would be a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
Can president trump order changes to Section 230?
No. Only Congress can change Section 230.
In 2018, the law was modified to make it possible to prosecute platforms that were used by alleged sex traffickers. As the power of internet companies has grown, some in Congress have also advocated changes to hold companies responsible for the spread of content celebrating acts of terror, for example, or for some types of hate speech.
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A draft of Trump’s May executive order, seen by Reuters, instead calls for the Federal Communications Commission to “propose and clarify regulations” under Section 230.
The order suggests companies should lose their protection over actions that are deceptive, discriminatory, opaque or inconsistent with their terms of service.
Do other countries have an equivalent to Section 230?
The legal protections provided by Section 230 are unique to US law, although the European Union and many other countries have some version of what is referred to as “safe harbor” laws that protect online platforms from liability if they move promptly when notified of illegal content.
The fact that the major internet companies are based in the United States also gives them protection.