Last week, President Trump threatened to veto the annual National Defense Authorization Act (a defense spending bill) unless Congress agrees to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Despite there being virtually no chance Section 230 is repealed, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been in the news of late.
So what is Section 230? And why does Section 230 matter at all?
In 1996, the Communications Decency Act was passed, which, generally speaking, sought to prevent internet sites from making inappropriate (re: sexual) material available to children. Sites sought to comply with the Act by setting up all sorts of age verification requirements for patrons. Problem was, the hurdles (and thus that portion of the Communications Decency Act) set up by the sites restricted access by adults to lawful material, and thus were determined to be unconstitutional.
So, that portion of the Act was removed, leaving Section 230, which provides “[n]o 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.” (47 U.S.C. Section 230.) To the point, this section allows internet sites to evade liability for information other people post on the site. For example, it permits Twitter or Facebook to avoid legal liability for a tweet or comment that I post to the site. It, in effect, creates a forum for speech, without the site having to act as an editor that polices defamatory or other potentially problematic speech.
Arguably, we want this: consider what might happen if every potentially problematic post or tweet was immediately removed from a website for fear the site would be sued. This would impose a significant restriction on speech—it would make people afraid or, more likely, unwilling to post or tweet (Why post it? It will just be removed), and would make the website trigger-happy about removing content. Note that there is a huge difference between “removing” content and “flagging” content as potentially being inaccurate, etc. The former removes or restricts speech, while the latter leaves the speech intact. In short, Repeal of Section 230 would expose Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to liability for content posted by third parties to those sites.