Why Reforms to Section 230 Could Radically Change How You Use the Internet

There’s been a lot of debate in recent months about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  Here’s an FAQ to get you up-to-speed.

Does the phrase 'Section 230' mean anything to you? Well, if you've ever used the internet it actually does whether you realize it or not. Here's what it is and why it matters.

What is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act? 

Section 230 is just 26 words, passed into law in 1996, that protects internet providers and websites from legal liability if someone using their platform or service posts something illegal.

It reads, "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It's often considered the single most-important piece of legislation that helped innovate the internet.

How Does Section 230 Impact Me? 

The legal protections offered by Sec. 230 have allowed sites like Google, Yelp, YouTube, Facebook and countless others to provide users a place to quickly and easily post their videos, reviews, photos, and other content.  It also allows internet service providers to provide cheap and easily-accessible internet.

Without that law, websites and internet service providers could be liable for users’ actions online, meaning they might otherwise restrict the ability to create and post content without moderation.

“Given the sheer size of user-generated websites,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, “it would be infeasible for online intermediaries to prevent objectionable content from cropping up on their site. Rather than face potential liability for their users' actions, most would likely not host any user content at all or would need to protect themselves by being actively engaged in censoring what we say, what we see, and what we do online.”

Why You Should Care About Changes to Section 230? 

After Twitter flagged several of his tweets for violating company policies, President Trump issued an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship” that directed his administration to consider reforms to Sec. 230.  He specifically mentioned Twitter, “selective censorship,” and the goal of eliminating political bias.

Tech companies warned the narrowing the Sec. 230’s legal protections would stifle innovation online and could permanently alter the way we use the internet.

“If the websites were legally responsible for every word, every image, (and) every video their users posted...they might not allow your content, altogether,” said Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity professor at the Naval Academy and author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created The Internet.  “The other possibility...would be that platforms want to incur less liability, so they'll just take a hands off approach and allow everything."

Former Vice President and presumptive democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has also suggested revoking the law because he doesn’t think sites like Facebook are doing enough to censor false and hateful content. 

Didn’t Section 230 Play a Key Role in U.S. Rep Devin Nunes’ Recent Lawsuit About a Parody Twitter Account? 

Yes. Because of Section 230, a judge ruled the Congressman could not sue Twitter over a parody account, Devin Nunes’ Cow, which now has more than 750,000 followers.

What About the First Amendment?

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing laws that limit free speech. However, the First Amendment does not pertain to rules created by private businesses.

What Can I Do to Share My Opinions About Possible Changes?

You can reach out to your member of Congress to voice your opinion. And, your votes in November will help determine the future of Section 230 too.

Where Can I Learn More?

Jeff Kosseff’s book details the origins and impact of Section 230, and the EFF provides Section 230 resources and news on its website.

Why did NBCLX record children explaining this story?

Sometimes, adults make things more complicated than necessary. NBCLX told this story using children on-camera because it’s a simple law that needed a simple explanation.