Making the Internet Work for Everyone: Preserving Section 230’s Critical Protections

Article In The Thread
People using computers and tablets in an office space. - Yuri A/Shutterstock
Dec. 19, 2023

The internet has become a crucial part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, that also means that the harms of the real world also live, and are sometimes amplified, on the internet. While much of the public conversation about harmful content focuses on a handful of powerful Big Tech companies and their social media services, we must be mindful that content regulations also apply to services and organizations that keep the public interest alive.

Commonly referred to as public interest organizations, places like Wikipedia or the Internet Archive provide a service, much like online versions of libraries, of connecting people for free to available knowledge of the world. Maintaining these services’ ability to operate online is an essential part of ensuring a baseline level of equity when access to education is highly unequal in the U.S. and around the world.

The specific piece of legislation that protects these and all other services is colloquially known as “Section 230,” introduced originally as part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. Section 230 maintains that service providers would not be held liable for third-party content (also known as user-generated content) posted on its platforms, regardless of whether it chose to take it down or keep it up. Section 230 provides practical protections for the exchange of public information: Online spaces like neighborhood forums, webpages with comment sections, online libraries, and social media platforms do not have to worry about getting sued for what others post or share.

The majority of the criticism of Section 230 focuses on the harms wrought by Big Tech, but most critics gloss over or ignore the benefits of a legal ecosystem whose protections are equally important for all internet content hosts, big or small. And Section 230 does not protect only for-profit businesses; it also is the underlying reason why — beyond all the for-pay and ads-based apps — we all have access to amazing free and open resources. (A fantastic in-depth history of Section 230 and its aftermath is told by Professor Jeff Kossef in his book The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.)

“Prescribing a remedy geared at getting even with Big Tech and not realizing the consequences for others, especially public interest organizations, won’t advance equity online.”

Public interest internet organizations rely substantially on protections from Section 230 to be able to maintain their services. If they were embroiled in expensive litigation challenging their decisions to take down, leave up, or otherwise modify content they host, it would make it practically impossible for these nonprofit organizations to function.

In June 2023, New America’s Open Technology Institute convened a panel of public interest organizations, with a keynote address from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the drafters of Section 230. The panel was convened to discuss the complex implications of reforming Section 230. The harms associated with being online are predominantly felt by historically disenfranchised groups. With few legally mandated responsibilities for platforms to police their own content, the potential for harassment and other harms is very high for marginalized communities. However, the lack of government-sanctioned censorship has also allowed diverse voices outside of the mainstream to flourish, provided opportunities for meaningful and deep connections, and allowed for organizing in ways never before possible.

While reform of Section 230 would lead to censoring voices hostile to marginalized groups, it could just as well censor the voices of those groups themselves as an unintended consequence. Beyond all of this, reform of Section 230 will force the rare flowers of public interest internet organizations that provide essential access to knowledge to turn over swaths of information or spend extravagantly on litigation.

The calls for reform of Section 230 come from groups across the political divide, but they are often rooted more in righteous indignation than in an understanding of the consequences of such reform. Prescribing a remedy geared at getting even with Big Tech and not realizing the consequences for others, especially public interest organizations, won’t advance equity online. Instead, we should all think about policy action, including legislation, in a way that takes account of everyone potentially affected. Actions like passing a comprehensive federal privacy law, mandating meaningful algorithmic accountability, and pursuing strong pro-competition policies can better protect people while addressing the heart of the concerns behind many efforts to reform and repeal Section 230.

We should embrace solutions that address online harms and protect the most vulnerable, rather than considering reform proposals that may or may not restrict Big Tech, without irreparably damaging the public interest internet.

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