Section 230: Useful or harmful?

Section 230 itself has not changed much but the opinions around it are constantly at odds.

In 1996, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was passed. It was designed to limit minors’ access to pornography. It prohibited from sending any “obscene or indecent” message knowingly to a minor and showing any “patently offensive” materials to minors. 

However, in 1997 the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the CDA and the Supreme Court found it to be unconstitutional because the free speech of adults was significantly impaired even while protecting minors. 

Section 230 is the only portion of CDA to be removed, saved and passed as a policy.

Section 230 says that “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.” 

Essentially, this means that website owners and moderators cannot be held responsible (or charged) for what the users on their website say or post. 

In addition to this, Section 230 also protects website owners and moderators from when they do remove content “in good faith.”

While this is all well and good, there have been debates on both sides about amending Section 230 or even repealing it.

Republicans argue that Section 230 is being used to censor too much information and that Section 230 guarantees that websites have to be politically neutral, which it doesn’t but more on that later. Essentially, they think they’re being censored. 

Democrats argue that it gives companies a pass on actually moderating their websites and doing things such as preventing illegal drug sales and stopping extremists from organizing violence. President Biden discussed completely throwing out Section 230 because of the misinformation running rampant online before he was inaugurated but since then, not much has been discussed and no big moves have been made (publicly).

Now, my point of view on this is complicated. As you might guess, I completely disagree with the Republican argument, however, I don’t wholly agree with the Democrat argument. 

A study done by Mathias Osmundsen, Michael Bang Petersen, and Alexander Bor of the Brookings Institution in 2021 found that Republicans are more likely to share fake news than Democrats (however, both sides do it). 

Websites like Facebook and Instagram have been cracking down on misinformation, hence why Republicans might feel like they are being censored, even if they aren’t.

Moving onto the Democrats, while I agree that Section 230 gives companies a pass, I don’t agree that completely removing it is in the best interest of all. 

I think that companies should regulate the content found on their websites because stopping the spread of misinformation and stopping harassment is important. However, if websites are not in some way shielded, they most likely won’t do much to moderate these issues or will over-moderate and limit content severely. 

I don’t disagree that Section 230 should be ratified, big corporations should not be able to get away with a lack of modding which, it seems to me they have been. For example, in one of the games I play, I’ve repeatedly reported one player for saying the most vile, disgusting messages to me and others and no action has been taken. It’s been months and months of reporting his messages almost daily. 

We must find a way to make sure that all the liability doesn’t fall on the big corporations but also protect the free exchanging of ideas while weeding out the messages that aren’t respectful or helpful to society.