Why everyone’s talking about Section 230

Section 230, passed in 1996, prevents social media giants from being liable for what people use them to post. But that could change.

For 27 years, Section 230 — part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — has shaped the internet.

Why everyone’s talking about Section 230

It states that website operators (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, media outlets) can’t be sued over what users post or comment, and may also set policies for what gets removed and what doesn’t.

For example…

… artist Ken Zeran received a barrage of threatening phone calls after offensive ads with his home phone number appeared on AOL.

In 1997, Zeran sued AOL and lost, setting an important precedent: AOL was not liable for what an anonymous troll used its platform to post.

Section 230 has since been cited in at least 350 cases — though most related lawsuits are dismissed before they’re even heard, per NPR.

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter…

… didn’t exist in the ‘90s. The internet has exploded in the last quarter century, and many want Section 230 reformed or repealed:

  • Some cite an influx of online hate speech and misinformation
  • Others, including the Trump admin, have claimed that allowing platforms to moderate freely lets them suppress certain ideologies

Meanwhile, advocates say it’s crucial to free speech. The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that it protects small websites and bloggers, too.

But now…

… a group of lawsuits are challenging Section 230’s reign.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a case in which the family of a student killed in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks alleged that Google-owned YouTube’s algorithms recommended extremist terrorist videos.

The court carefully considered the arguments — Justice Elena Kagan quipped they’re “not the nine greatest experts on the internet” — without making any decisions, but did express concerns about overhauling the internet and endless lawsuits.

The court heard a similar case against Twitter yesterday, regarding whether social media companies are liable for “aiding and abetting” terrorists, a violation of 2016’s Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

No opinion was issued, but Vox reported the court seemed unlikely to hold social media companies liable.

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Topics: Internet Lawsuits

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