What Happens to the Internet if Section 230 is Repealed?
The internet can seem like a lawless place. In reality, plenty of laws shape what happens in our online worlds. And one is under threat: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
This bit of legislation ensures that providers of interactive services aren’t considered publishers. It may sound like a tricky, little technicality. But if that protection goes away, almost everything we know about the online world is likely to change.
Let’s walk through an example.
Imagine that I have a deep-seated hatred of squirrels. (Full disclosure: I love squirrels and have a backyard dotted with feeders. This is one of the silliest examples I could think of, so bear with me.)
Somehow, I’ve become convinced that we have so many squirrels because too many people feed them. So I write up Facebook and Twitter posts connecting feeding with squirrel population explosions. My posts get popular, and they are indexed on Google.
I take things onward, and I create events where I encourage people to destroy all the feeders they see. And I entice some of my followers to use those events to threaten people that feed squirrels. I even publish a name and address of a squirrel feeder.
At one of my events, someone is hurt. And that person wants a payment to cover expenses.
Due to Section 230, this person can’t file lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter, or Google. These agencies are simply providers, not publishers, so they’re not liable for the things I write and the stuff my followers do.
Now, let’s imagine that Section 230 has been repealed.
I could get sued for my posts. But so could Facebook, Twitter, Google, and any other site I used to spread my messages.
A repeal like this would most certainly cripple big tech companies. They’d need to invest in staff to monitor and remove objectionable content. And they’d need plenty of lawyers to handle all of the suits headed in their direction. Some companies would buckle under the economic pressure and go under.
But our online experiences would likely be altered too. Plenty of people grouse about censorship now. If Section 230 goes away, that issue is likely to get much, much worse.
It’s also possible that some companies would limit participation so they can control what people say and do online. I suspect we’d see more platforms requiring users to verify their identities. That step has, in some cases, encouraged people to behave online. They know what they do on a screen could bite them in real life.
On the flip side, it’s reasonable to suggest that some forms of egregious social networking would fall away without the protection of Section 230. We’d likely see fewer groups planning protests via social media or boasting about their plans to harm their foes.
I have no idea how this discussion will play out in the future under a new administration. But I hope that legislators will look over all the impacts very carefully before they act.
In the interim, companies can and should continue to invest in social media marketing. As the coronavirus rages on, many people stay connected with their friends, families, and beloved fans via social media. Accurate, compelling posts are an effective way to reach these consumers.
But with repeal looming, we should all be looking at our posts with care. Ensure that you’re not even suggesting anything that could be offensive. And take action to clean up your comments and followers. If you see hate or threats, act on them via blocking the user and deleting the comment. Maybe, if we all clean up our acts, we won’t need repeal to save the online communities we love.