Once Again, Section 230’s Authors Feel The Need To Tell Everyone That Section 230 Is Not The Evil You Think It Is

from the listen-to-them-please dept

For not the first time this year, Section 230’s authors — Ron Wyden and Chris Cox — have felt the need to speak up and debunk some of the many, many myths around Section 230. Their team-up in a filing to the FCC remains one of the most thorough and comprehensive debunkings of 230 myths out there that it should be required reading for anyone criticizing the law. But apparently no one actually reads FCC filings, so they’ve now taken to the pages of USA Today (which recently ran a nearly fact free attack on 230) to explain once again why Section 230 is so important to the open internet.

The op-ed starts by talking about the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the sketchy fraudulent practices of Jordan Belfort and his company Stratton Oakmont. As 230 fanatics know, that company, Stratton Oakmont, is a huge part of the reason why Section 230 exists. People on stock discussion forums on early internet service Prodigy had criticized the Belfort’s company, and rather than go after whoever posted the criticism, Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy itself. And, incredibly, a judge had initially sided with Stratton Oakmont because Prodigy moderated its forums and pitched itself as a “family friendly” internet service.

Prodigy argued it should not be responsible for the content its users create. It had no way of knowing whether Stratton Oakmont was a fraud or not and had never expressed an opinion on the subject. But a New York court held in favor of the real-life Wolf of Wall Street, exposing Prodigy to enormous liability.

The court specifically cited Prodigy’s efforts at content moderation, aimed at prohibiting online harassment, as the reason for treating it differently than online platforms where “anything goes.” If Prodigy had not attempted to stifle swearing, bullying and “grossly repugnant” content, the court stated, it would not have been liable for damages. 

That ruling is what drew the attention of Cox and Wyden, who realized that if the law worked that way, we’d never have an open internet at all. Sites would be afraid to do any moderation at all — and then you’d just have garbage, spam, abuse, harassment, porn across the internet.

The alarming message of this case was clear: in the future, online platforms shouldn’t attempt to moderate even the most awful content. Doing so would make them legally responsible for everything their users post.

And that’s when Cox and Wyden went to work:

The result of that collective, year-long effort was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law overturned the result in the Wolf of Wall Street case, by protecting “good Samaritans” who attempt to keep cyberspace safe for all.

So now, Wyden and Cox are not at all happy with the way people continually portray Section 230 in a manner that is completely disconnected from reality. And their number one target… is the President of the United States:

Fast forward to 2020. President Trump has promised to veto the National Defense Authorization Act, even though it passed the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities, in order to draw attention to his concerns with social media platforms that have flagged his content. As a condition for signing the bill, he has called for the complete repeal of Section 230.

But repealing the law entirely would return us to the legal no-man’s land that necessitated Section 230 in the first place. It can’t be that every one of the over 200 million websites available to Americans — all of them governed by Section 230 — will have to either stop publishing their user’s contributions, or let “anything go” — no matter how gross or illegal. The whistleblowers of today would be shut out from sites like Yelp, Glassdoor, TripAdvisor, or any investment message board, all of whom depend on Section 230 to host user reviews and content.

Cox and Wyden point out that Congress has been looking at a bunch of different proposals to reform Section 230, but as they dig into each reform proposal, they notice that there are significant challenges, and each reform that aims to fix one problem, likely creates other problems. But repealing the law entirely, would be a total and complete disaster.

For months, Congress has been sifting through proposals to fine-tune Section 230 for today’s internet and today’s unique challenges. This is by far the wiser course. But it is a difficult business, because for every problem solved there is a new one created.

Example: if platforms are made responsible for everything millions of users post on their sites, they will have to read it all first. This would mark the end of the internet as a forum for real time communication.

It would also force every website hosting user content to create round-the-clock legal and editorial review teams staffed with hundreds or thousands of people to continually monitor every message, video, photo, and blog. Alternatively, websites would face exorbitant legal damages at every turn. That is not realistic.

More realistic is that the many online avenues that ordinary citizens currently use to express themselves would be closed. Hosting user-created content will be too costly and risky. It is difficult to imagine a scenario more chilling of individual speech and the public’s right to know.

As they conclude their piece, people agitating for the reform or repeal of Section 230 should “be careful what we wish for” because… “sometimes, those complaining about online speech are doing worse than crying wolf.”

This won’t stop the disingenuous lying about Section 230, but hopefully it helps to better inform the few people who are first being introduced to the debate by those disingenuous arguments.

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Filed Under: chris cox, free speech, ron wyden, section 230, speech