The toxicity of online culture that fuels national polarization can be traced to a section of a law that has allowed the unaccountable platforms to proliferate information.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states that, with some exceptions, Internet companies are not legally responsible for the content they host if published by someone else: “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.” This law provides online platforms that publish third-party content — including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit — immunity from civil liability, including claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation. Unlike traditional media, it is not their responsibility to police, edit, or refute what is said on their platform.
An often-used example is a restaurant review on Yelp. If you trash the joint, Yelp is not responsible, because it is merely the host. While there is great social value in platforms, they don’t play by the same rules as other media. These golden-maned Silicon Valley once-unicorns have created digital town squares where hate-spewing, lie-spreading, and bigoted exchanges can take place, carving out free space for the duel. The louder and more dangerous vitriol is amplified to their millions of users. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube hold no legal responsibility for the consequence.
This freedom was born in a more naïve age, 1996, when Congress enacted the statute based on this finding: “The Internet and other interactive computer services have flourished, to the benefit of all Americans, with a minimum of government regulations."
The finding is one of the challenges of this law. As findings are enshrined as permanent statutory language, it makes it challenging for a court to rebut later should a federal judge review it. Even if judges believe the Internet and other interactive computer services have not flourished to the benefit of all Americans, they must set that aside and accept that Congress decided otherwise. Add to this that Section 230 has now been neatly folded into the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which could further protect the legal shield.
These mega-platforms were built and funded by venture capitalists, technologists, and their lobbyists who understood that Section 230 ensured a Wild West — not that they could predict back then how hate, disinformation, or meddling by foreign states would spread like wildfire across their platforms. All was meant to be free and beautiful, and it was . . . for a while. Yet, almost 25 years later, for such a wired world, moral fiber hasn’t yet been built into the system.
Defenders of Section 230 caution that modification risks censorship. But editors and journalists have upheld the First Amendment for over 100 years. Why wouldn’t they now?
Policing the Internet for disinformation and the billion-bits of content posted is one solution, but so far it has been inadequate. Amending Section 230 may be more realistic. Pew Research reported last December that one in five Americans get their news from social media. For those under 49, it jumps to almost half. Common Sense Media and Survey Monkey report that over 50 percent of teens get their news from YouTube, mostly from celebrities and social media stars. Facebook, Google, and YouTube have ad revenue and can afford to build quality newsrooms. But they won’t until 230 is amended to require them to assume their responsibilities as the gatekeepers of civil discourse. Their role as publishers needs to be legalized.
Section 230 should be narrowed to reflect the reality of our new digital world, where both facts and trained journalists seem in peril. In 2020, we are wiser about the effects of technology on our lives and democracy. We should not allow the continued free-wheeling and profiteering of this attention economy to erode democracy through hyper-polarization.
Heidi Legg is director of special projects at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and founder of TheEditorial.com.