Over the last few weeks, several congressional committees have debated the future of free speech online.
Since 1996, internet platforms hosted speech by users thanks to the protections in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law holds individuals responsible for what they post online and it has enabled American companies to provide the world’s most cutting-edge technology in communication, business and entertainment. Removing Section 230 protections would threaten America’s global Internet and innovation leadership, cripple Internet small businesses, hurt investment in many Internet start-ups and trample our principle of free speech.
In about two dozen words, the law states: “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.” With that clear safeguard, Section 230 establishes the core, commonsense principle that responsibility for online speech lies with the speaker, not the host. It ensures the survival of the internet economy and creates the cornerstone of online free expression we enjoy today.
Without this unique provision in American law, an Internet platform could be held directly liable for any material posted by any user – so there would be far less legitimate expression posted. This American framework is why U.S. online platforms are global leaders.
Without Section 230, platforms that moderate content could be held civilly liable for “sponsoring” the content that they allow to be posted. So they would have to choose between refusing to moderate any expression – no matter how false or offensive – or being far more restrictive in what they allow to be posted.
Critics argue Section 230 mainly protects big tech companies. Some politicians have even been pushing to “[remove] the immunity big tech companies receive under Section 230 unless they submit to an external audit” that would certify “political neutrality.” But the real casualties of any Section 230 amendments wouldn’t be companies of scale; they would be Internet users, whose freedom of speech would be radically curtailed.
Rather than limit all expression, some politicians would impose instead a political test – to “[remove] the immunity big tech companies receive under Section 230 unless they submit to an external audit” that would certify “political neutrality.” Some even suggest Section 230 be revised to allow the FCC or FTC to oversee online speech. By essentially letting political appointees decide what online speech is appropriate under vague definitions and standards, we would be cultivating an environment of suppression eerily similar to China’s, where online expression is subject to government approval and whim.
This is not the American way. Aside from the potential for severe political abuse, the problem with this and similar approaches is that legitimate users would be punished by the loss of entire legitimate platforms. Beyond the countless individuals who benefit every day, Section 230 empowers marginalized groups to speak out powerfully without fear of censorship. It is hard to imagine the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter movements succeeding without this law’s protections. The right to freely exchange ideas has helped make us the most innovative and free country in the world.
Weakening this law would promote allow an unprecedented level of online censorship, whether through new legal caution or a new regulatory mandate. In fact, to put this in perspective: Anyone who has ever forwarded an email, a picture, or any political speech has been protected by Section 230.
Consider a world without Section 230 protections. Large companies could find the massive resources to scour and filter their platforms of any potentially controversial content. Startups and small businesses, however, could not. Instead, these upstarts would be deluged by opportunistic lawsuits from all corners of the Internet. Small business would quickly go bankrupt, start-ups would not launch, and investors wouldn’t invest. America’s vibrant culture of innovation would grow dim.
Further, a non-Section 230 world would mean internet platforms may choose not to moderate any third-party content at all. Currently, Section 230 ensures that internet platforms can perform the essential work of moderating harmful content without facing liability. Removing those protections would disincentivize platforms from removing content, allowing free reign to violent extremists, Nazis and other repugnant actors.
Section 230 is a uniquely American law. It has promoted free expression, enabled our global innovation leadership, and stoked our dynamic start-up ecosystem. Because of Section 230, startups can launch without massive lawsuits, Internet sites can host third-party reviews and individuals can communicate freely across global platforms.
Lawmakers should oppose any legislation that would chip away at this law and jeopardize the future of America’s vibrant, competitive internet economy. If you agree and value the irreplaceable value of free online speech, tell your lawmakers to protect your free expression rights online.
Michael Petricone is senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).