The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I share that for context. Presumably you know it, certainly if you live in the United States. The Constitution and Amendments exist to protect us and our rights, from government and laws that could limit those rights, or criminalize our actions if the government was to legislate them.
We all have the right (in the U.S.), and the government can’t ever prosecute us, for saying something.
Okay so what’s Section 230?
Obviously, Section 230 isn’t an Amendment to the Constitution, I just want you to have that frame of reference in mind, that many regulations and policies exist to protect our rights.
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" (47 U.S.C. § 230).
Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and it’s one of the most valuable pieces of legislation for protecting freedom of expression (free speech) and innovation on the Internet
What it’s saying is that online intermediaries that host or share speech (content posted, articles, social media, etc), are protected against a range of laws that exist to make what someone says illegal.
“Wait, some things said might be illegal? I thought we had free speech”
Well yeah, we do, but you can’t Libel someone, for example (Libel: a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation; a written defamation)
There are a host of things that you actually can be prosecuted for saying, even though we have free speech.
Point being, Section 230 prevents anyone from being able to prosecute the SITE on which such things might be said. In a nutshell.
That can still be confusing so let’s use a specific example…
Let’s say Joe Makeupaname writes on Quora, something slanderous about you. Joe can’t do that, you have the right to prosecute Joe for saying such a thing.
Well, being on Quora, should Quora be held liable for it too?
Section 230 says no. Quora isn’t responsible for what people say. Quora has terms and conditions and Quora can censor and ban whatever they want but we can’t exist in a society where every website can be sued or worse, for something someone says (we don’t have the technology, human resources, nor capital it would cost, to make sure every site is constantly monitored for such things).
Section 230 protects all that “hosting.” And it goes deeper than that: Quora is further hosted by a company that provides servers (I don’t know what it is, just that it is… something like bluehost, hosts a lot of websites). Bluehost, in this case, is protected by Section 230 as well.
Before you go thinking that maybe we should toss this law… please recognize that it doesn’t just apply to “Big Tech” or Social Media. It isn’t just a regulation protecting Facebook or some major brand with which we have concerns.
Like the First Amendment, it protects EVERYONE from the government going after what happens on a site.
That’s VERY VERY important.
"The Most Important Law in Tech"
My neighbor owns a restaurant, with a website. If Section 230 didn’t exist, he could be sued and put out of business because of something someone posts in comments on his site. Can he remove those comments? Yes, he can, but he can’t be held liable for something someone else says.
I have a website. People comment on it all the time. I can’t manage keeping up with all the comments to 100% guarantee and ensure that nothing wrong is ever posted there. Government shouldn’t be able to go after my website hosting service because someone posts something illegal on my site.
Repealing Section 230 of the Communications Act would be a massive blow to the U.S. and world economy.
According to research from NERA Economic Consulting, Fifth Era, Booz & Co, Wired. and Computer & Communications Industry Association, $440,000,000,000 (billion) in GDP would be lost every decade that sites are without protection from the liability of other people communicating on those sites. Companies and sites would have to immediately PAY for the people to make sure nothing wrong is ever said by others. Realizing that, appreciate that PEOPLE aren’t judges or lawyers (and we can’t make them so) - we each one of us, don’t know what can’t be said nor what is actually incriminating speech - you aren’t a lawyer who knows the law and keeps up with changes to all those laws, so that you might be able to screen everything; even if you technically manage doing so.
Repealing Section 230 would force EVERY website (your local, favorite small business website) to have to make sure nothing ever violates a law that someone breaks by saying something.
Imagine repealing the First Amendment… and then holding you responsible for someone else saying something inflammatory. Same idea.