What’s this “Section 230” I keep hearing about, and why should I care?
Section 230 refers to a particular part of the Communication Decency Act of 1996. Back then, Congress passed the law as a way to encourage the commercial growth of the Internet, which until the early 1990s had been available to only nonprofit organizations (.ORG), educational institutions (.EDU), and the military (.MIL). With the introduction of commercial use (.COM) there was a concern that companies that hosted websites might be deemed to be publishers, and thus could be liable for the harm caused by content on their sites that was posted by third parties.
Congress enacted Section 230 to make it clear that Internet companies (remember, this is before there was a Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or TikTok) were not liable to content posted to their sites by others. One result is that the Internet grew wildly, without lots of law suits against the hosting companies. Many said that this was a victory for free speech.
Another result, according to many, was the growth of online hate and radicalization, fueled by algorithms that promoted violent and hateful content as a way of keeping eyeballs glued to sites like YouTube (which is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company.) Activists claimed that these companies profited from all of this content, but could not be held liable. They have turned to the Supreme Court to overturn Section 230.
In oral arguments this past week, most of the Justices seemed not to understand the Internet or these issues very well. In Gonzalez v. Google, the plaintiffs claim that Google should be held accountable because YouTube promoted videos that radicalized French terrorists who killed their daughter, an exchange student studying in Paris. Justice Samuel Alito at one point said he was “completely confused” by the case. Justice Elena Sagan said, “We’re a court, we really don’t know about these things. These are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet.”
A second case, Twitter v. Taamneh asked the Court to tackle Section 230 because Twitter allegedly could have done more to filter out terrorist content, but did not.
The Doc thinks that if Congress wanted to protect Internet hosts in 1996, then Congress should be the one to revise that law if revision is needed. Decisions in both Section 230 cases should be published by the Court by the end of the term in June. Stay tuned.
Have something to say on the Internet? Concerned about your liability? Check with the attorneys at LW&H. They know lots about this stuff.
Until next month,
— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.