“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is one of the Internet’s most important and most misunderstood laws” – Adi Robertson, The Verge

Dear consumers of the USA!  Your rights may be taken away from you by the US Senate.  We, at PissedConsumer, need to stand together with millions of people that are used to speaking their mind online, need to stand together on defending Section 230 of the CDA Act.

The US Senate to Limit the Power of Section 230

The Senate wants to limit your freedom of speech, freedom of expression and information exchange on the Internet.

PissedConsumer.com is here to discuss the current situation with Section 230 of the CDA and to ask for your opinion on this matter. We know, even the name itself, “Section 230 of the CDA”, has one too many letters in it. But don’t worry; we will break down everything for you in simple terms.

The key thing about Section 230 is that it allows for the free exchange of ideas on the Internet. It is just as important to online free speech as the First Amendment. Currently, there are heated debates going on in the US Senate about this piece of legislation. And there are members of the US Senate who want to limit the power of Section 230 or even to repeal it altogether. What this means is that there is an open attack on your online freedom of speech and freedom of expression rights.

What is Section 230?

So, let’s see what this Section 230 actually is.

The Communications Decency Act (or the “CDA”) became the law in 1996. Its main purpose was to regulate pornographic and other indecent materials on the Internet. Section 230 of the CDA or CDA 230 provides websites, blogs, and social networks that host speech with protection against a range of laws that might otherwise hold them legally responsible for what we, as users, say and do on these sites.

All of your most favorite online platforms (including PissedConsumer, Facebook, Instаgram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) became popular in a global digital world because they allow you to share your reviews, opinions, photos, memes, GIFs, videos, and the like.

In a nutshell, CDA 230 is a security blanket that allows PissedConsumer.com and other sites like us to host user-generated content. For Pissedconsumer it is consumer reviews and comments.  This legislation allows Facebook and other social media platforms to host people’s posts. It allows Craigslist and other advertising websites to host classified ads.

How Was it Before Section 230 and User-Generated Internet?

Now, since we have stated earlier that Section 230 is the “foundation of the modern Internet”, let’s remember for a second how the Internet was back then, before Section 230. This was way before Facebook and Twitter. Back then there were only about 16 million people online in the entire world. Google would not exist for another several years and Mark Zuckerberg was still going to school. People who regularly communicated online mostly gathered in niche special-interest forums and communities to discuss games, movies and the like.

Then the user-generated Internet emerged. It brought the wisdom of the crowd. Individuals started becoming experts within groups and forming collective opinions about brands, products, services, industries, other individuals, etc. Along came social media platforms with billions, not just millions, of monthly users.

Google progressed to direct people to user-generated content all over the Internet. People like Jeff Bezos built trillion-dollar business ventures, having realized that instead of selling something, they could make much more money connecting buyers with third-party sellers online. Yet, all of this was still governed by the laws meant for the earlier, less complicated Internet. And Section 230 has not become the law yet.

Lawmakers wanted the Internet to be open. Yet, they realized that such openness went hand in hand with certain harmful activities. Let’s imagine that Person A and Person B started their own online message boards. Person A runs his website sort of haphazardly: there is no monitoring of the website content, pornographic ads and indecent messages from all kinds of online trolls are popping up here and there, etc. Person B, acting in a “Good Samaritan” fashion, expresses a lot of care about what gets published on his site: he has content guidelines and uses software to remove offensive and otherwise objectionable language (i.e. he is trying to moderate the content).

Before Section 230, if Person A and Person B (as businesses) had got sued because of a piece of information posted on their website by one of the users, the law would have rewarded Person A and destroyed Person B.

Thus, online businesses found themselves in a fine predicament before Section 230: to moderate or not to moderate. If they tried to filter out online content, they were liable for anything their users said. If they wanted to avoid that risk, all they had to do was to forego moderating anything altogether.

But why should companies be penalized for trying to moderate online content to curb "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" materials? That’s exactly the question that then-Representative and now Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and former Representative Chris Cox (D-CA) took to heart. They became the “architects” of Section 230.

Here is what Senator Wyden recently said about those times: “…What I was struck by then is that if somebody owned a website or a blog, they could be held personally liable for something posted on their site. And I said then — and it’s the heart of my concern now — if that’s the case, it will kill the little guy, the startup, the inventor, the person who is essential for a competitive marketplace. It will kill them in the crib…”.

So, CDA 230 has peacefully existed and suited everyone until twenty-three years later it suddenly became the most important yet most controversial US legal protection for internet companies.

Key Benefits of Section 230

Now, let us stop here for a minute and summarize the key purposes of Section 230 as it was initially designed:

  • It shields not just providers of digital services from litigation but users of these services too, which means you. Without it, anyone/anyone of you could find yourselves liable for re-Twitting, re-blogging or posting links to content that is later found to break the law.
  • It protects online platforms that process large amounts of third-party content [read “content posted by you as users”].
  • It was created to enable platforms to moderate content — and became law because the Congress wanted tech companies to moderate more content than they previously had been moderating.
  • It gives websites confidence to make decisions that are in the best interests of their audience, that facilitate their audience’s needs – without fearing liability.
  • It helps internet companies attract investments and, therefore, grow and develop faster.

Section 230 Pros and Cons. Experts’ Opinions

To give you the general idea of what experts from various fields are saying on the Section 230 dilemma, we are giving you a (hopefully) fascinating list of quotes below.

Here are the remarks made by some of those against Section 230.

…With members of both the Senate and House of Representatives seriously considering whether to amend or eliminate Section 230’s grant of immunity because big tech is not living up to its end of the legislative bargain, I believe that enshrining it in our trade agreements would be a mistake… – Senator Ted Cruz (R–Texas)

…With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship. [...] Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain… – Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri)

Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) has been pushing for the demise of Section 230 since she was California's Attorney General. One of her suggestions, in particular, is that we must "…hold social media platforms accountable for the hate infiltrating their platforms…".

…One of the reasons tech platforms are able to publish such content without consequences is the law typically shorthanded as Section 230, which allows internet platform providers to moderate some content without fear of being held liable for most of what users do on their platforms… – Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

Benioff called Section 230 "the most dangerous law on the books right now," and said it should be "abolished".

…We need to fix CDA 230. […] We need CDA 230 immunity to apply only to claims relating to publication – like obscenity and defamation. If a company being sued thinks it’s entitled to immunity, they should have to plead that – instead of courts just dismissing the case early on… – Carrie Goldberg, Esquire (victims’ rights attorney)

Here is what those pro-Section 230 are saying.

…The beauty of Section 230 is that it moots the need to inquire about why the service made the decisions that it made. We’re not in a position to decide why they published something and why they chose not to publish something else. That’s a losing game. Section 230 says let’s not do that, let’s just have a categorical rule: It says third-party content, the online services aren’t liable for it; unless it sits along the statutory exceptions… – Eric Goldman, Law Professor, leading expert in Internet Law and Intellectual Property.

He also adds that Section 230 is "better than the First Amendment". To hear more from Eric Goldman, please watch the video interview he gave to Pissed Consumer on Section 230.

…In the absence of Section 230, the internet as we know it would shrivel. […] If you unravel 230, then you harm the opportunity for diverse voices, diverse platforms, and, particularly, the little guy to have a chance to get off the ground… – Senator Ron Wyden (D–Ore.)

…Without Section 230—or with a weakened Section 230—online platforms would have to exercise extreme caution in their moderation decisions in order to limit their own liability. […] Therefore, undermining Section 230 effectively forces platforms to put their thumbs on the scale—that is, to remove far more speech than only what is actually unlawful, censoring innocent people and often important speech in the process… – Corynne McSherry, Ph.D., Legal Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

…"I’m generally supportive of the Section 230, because without it you don’t have the Internet […] Who’s going to be able to judge whether a company is or isn’t showing bias? Then all the sudden take away that 230 protection—I don’t know, I’ve got my doubts on that one… – Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)

You have a lot of people with very different criticisms of the current system who say, ‘Let’s get rid of Section 230,’ but they’re not answering the next question of, ‘What would the internet look like without Section 230?' […] Now you have single social media platforms that have billions of users, and they have tremendous power. The result is they can’t please everyone, and they generally don’t try to. People are always going to disagree with moderation decisions when there’s that much power… – Jeff Kosseff, Cybersecurity Law Professor

Big Tech in Support of Section 230

You are now familiar with Section-230 related opinions offered by politicians, scholars, and business people. But there is another important point of view – the point of view of “big tech”, internet companies. After all, they are direct participants of the conflict at hand, being the “defendants” in this case.

On October 16, 2019 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitles “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers”. There were a number of testimonies presented at the hearing. But we would like to draw your attention to these two: a testimony given by Steve Huffman, Co-Founder & CEO for Reddit, Inc., and a testimony given by Katherine Oyama, Global Head of Intellectual Property Policy for Google, Inc.

In his testimony, Mr. Huffman established the reasons why Section 230 is critical to his company. He also explained how Section 230 makes Reddit the website where the opinion of every community of users really matters. He presented the following arguments in defense of Section 230:

  • Reddit is a “community-driven site", i.e. it revolves not around individuals, but around communities. These communities of users are the heart and soul of Reddit’s business operation. And they specifically are the ones watching over the “purity”, so to speak, of Reddit’s content.
  • In essence, Reddit’s business model is similar in its democratic principles to the government structure of the United States. There are fundamental rules, “federal laws”, which everyone at Reddit must follow. Then there are rules within each community, “state laws”, which are designed to meet the unique needs of members of each particular community.
  • Without Section 230 Reddit would not be able to take care of its content because if they can no longer employ good-faith, user-led moderation, they will not able to employ armies of contractors to take care of Reddit’s content properly.
  • Even the smallest changes to Section 230 may potentially “undermine the power of community, chill discussion, and hurt the vulnerable”.
  • Section 230 is a uniquely American law […] that has allowed the internet and platforms like [Reddit] to flourish while incentivizing good faith attempts to mitigate the unavoidable downsides of free expression”.

Ms. Oyama in her testimony also talked about user empowerment stating that “…at Google [they] build tools that empower users to access, create, and share information like never before – giving them more choice, opportunity, and diversity of options”. She highlighted another significant aspect related to Section 230 – its relation to the US economy. Her line of reasoning was as follows:

  • Section 230 “has generated a robust internet ecosystem where commerce, innovation, and free expression all thrive — while at the same time enabling providers to develop content detection mechanisms and take aggressive steps to fight online abuse”
  • The US has a $172 billion trade surplus in digital services, and Section 230 was a key contributor to that surplus
  • Google services are positive forces for creativity, learning, innovation, and access to information
  • This creativity and innovation continuously yields enormous economic benefits for the United States
  • Digital platforms help millions of consumers find legitimate content across the internet, facilitating almost $29 trillion USD in online commerce each year
  • “In 2018, the internet sector contributed $2.1 trillion to the U.S. economy and created 6 million jobs […] Google's search and advertising tools alone helped provide $335 billion of economic activity within the United States for more than 1.3 million businesses, website publishers, and nonprofit organizations”
  • Without Section 230 protection and benefits such results would not be possible. Google, as well as other search engines and Internet businesses, would not be able to take care of their content, would either over-filter it or not filter it at all out of fear of legal liability – “in either scenario, harming consumers and businesses that rely on and use [Google] services every day”

Conclusions

Now, after you have gone through all the above definitions, statistics, examples, quotes and opinions, we need your opinion. We need you to act right now.

Please answer these simple questions:

  • Do you see modern Internet without its “core features” – freedom of speech and wisdom of the crowd?
  • What would you do if there were no Google, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, PissedConsumer, etc.?
  • What if there were no review websites, blogs, and forums dealing with controversial issues?
  • What if parody sites, whistleblowers and corporate watchdog sites ceased to exist?
  • What if you had no place and no means online to express your opinion, to find new connections, to share your opinions, to vent out, to ask for advice or to share a joyful moment whoever with and whenever you want?

The right to freedom of speech is one of the founding principles of the United States that Americans cherish. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It grants all Americans the liberty to speak their minds without fear of being censored or persecuted.

Help us protect Section 230 – the Internet’s First Amendment! – We need to hear your opinion in comments and please share this information.