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The Threat of Repealing Section 230 and What it Means for Online Forums

Section 230 currently grants online platforms immunity from liability for user-generated content.

In the early rise of the online age, website and Internet developers were flying blind. The amazing world of possibilities the Internet opened needed regulations, but the tech gurus behind its evolution didn’t want to stifle creativity and free speech, and wanted to ensure the world wide web was free and open to all.   

In the decades since, regulations such as net neutrality and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act have become polarizing, hot button issues with pros and cons on each side. 

Section 230 and the threat of its demise, especially, could transform the way social media and online forums work. So, what is Section 230? What does the threat of repealing it mean for the online forums?

Let’s take a look.

Repealing or significantly altering Section 230 could disproportionately affect smaller online platforms that may lack the resources to invest in robust content moderation systems.

All you need to know about the Communications Decency Act

Although the Internet was made free for public use in 1991, it didn’t really catch on with the masses until 1993. Amid hacker attacks, online threats, and problematic Internet pages, the US federal government stepped in and passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA). 

The CDA prohibits any indecent or obviously offensive materials from being posted in public online forums. That includes chat rooms, news sites, public web pages, and forum websites. (The CDA still covers modern day forums like Reddit and Quora.) 

For example, knowingly distributing any pornography or “patently offensive” material to a minor became criminalized under the CDA. 

Section 230 of the act is specifically vital to the way website hosts and developers operate and what responsibility they hold in regards to the published content of their online forums.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 is often the most highlighted aspect of the CDA, and for good reason. The section states 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.”

Basically this means that platforms like Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) are absolved of legal responsibility for the content that their users post. 

For example, say a keyboard troll posted a hate-filled, racist Facebook diatribe that incited violence. Although that user might face criminal liability for their words, in accordance with Section 230, Mark Zuckerburg and Meta would not.

Why Section 230 was created

In light of the threat of the repealing of Section 230, it’s important to revisit the reasons behind its initial creation. In the early 1990s, the Internet was a new frontier — the Wild West of computer interaction. As more and more users connected online, discussion forums became extremely popular.

Until the CDA was passed, the role of service providers and forum hosts in the facilitation of these online forums wasn’t clearly defined — were they content publishers or merely content distributors? 

Section 230 partially clarified that service providers were considered distributors, but still maintained some responsibility for the content they allowed. For example, promoting harmful content or misinformation could still result in liability.

Proponents of the section applauded its indirect protection of free speech, and the amendment allowed forums and host providers to thrive without the burden of censorship. 

As a result, multiple lawsuits have been filed demanding protection from Section 230 — and many of the plaintiffs in these cases won in court. This has subsequently caused the passage of other Internet regulations to amend the CDA.

Here are some examples:

Backpage.com LLC vs McKenna:

In the early 2000s, the classified section of Backpage.com gained notoriety for allowing the advertising of sex services. Although ads on the site weren’t blocked, the Backpage dating services were continually monitored. The website had disclaimers and support for reporting and blocking ads. 

When the site was implicated in complicity of child sex trafficking, Attorney General, Rob McKenna, of Washington, demanded that Backpage crack down on the ads and subtly threatened legal action. 

The website contended that their services fell under the protection of Section 230, sued McKenna … and won. 

Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act: 

In 1998, the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Act was introduced into federal law. This act offers service providers even greater protections than Section 230, but works in conjunction with it.

The act mandates four safe harbors for online service providers. Digital network communications, which means a service provider isn’t liable for messages sent on its network. 

System caching, which essentially protects service providers and forum host sites from litigation based on what users cache on their networks or websites. Information stored on systems based on user’s directions. For example, if a user of an online service stores problematic data, the provider cannot be held liable. 

And lastly, information location tools, such as search engines and websites, utilized by service members. However, policies and procedures still need to remain in place with consequences for repeat offenders. 

Digital Millennium Copyright Act:   

1998 also ushered in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to add additional protections for online service providers. In conjunction with Section 230, this act protects service providers and forum hosts from liability for copyright infringement if a user violates copyright laws.

They might be more likely to remove user-generated content to avoid potential legal liability, which could lead to concerns about censorship and free speech.

Why Section 230 is being threatened

In recent years, there’s been a growing controversy surrounding Section 230, and the threat to repeal it looms just over the horizon. Although this federal law shaped the online world that we currently know, it’s come under scrutiny due to concerns over how it detrimentally impacts online discourse, the ominous spread of misinformation, and the proliferation of harmful content.

Critics argue that the existing legal protections, including Section 230, have enabled tech giants to maintain their dominance without adequately addressing issues related to content moderation and user privacy.

The debate surrounding Section 230

Similarly, increasing political polarization has intensified the debate around Section 230. With the perception that social media platforms are biased in their content moderation practices, calls for repeal or revision of Section 230 have gained momentum from both sides of the political spectrum.

Some of the concerns over Section 230 center on the following:

  • The facilitation of extreme misinformation on social media platforms
  • Publication of harmful content
  • Lack of accountability of online platforms such as Facebook and X
  • Neglectful moderation
  • Rise of hate speech
  • Highlight of one-sided, extreme fringe ideologies
  • Unchecked, monopoly-like moderation power wielded by top platforms
  • The slow death of public discourse

How a repeal of Section 230 could impact online forums

Interestingly, the contentions made against Section 230 could occur if the law is repealed as well. Online forums with little moderation could be forced to shut down.

The scope of forum discussions could become severely limited, and online service platforms could censor all posts at their discretion. The protections of Section 230 aren’t absolute — forum and website hosts can’t break federal law with the content they allow.

The Supreme Court cases pertaining to Section 230 

In 2023, there were two cases the Supreme Court heard that could have meant the end of Section 230. Gonzalez vs Google and Twitter vs Taamneh both centered on the responsibility that social media platforms should hold to blocking posts that actively promote terrorism. 

Both cases also claimed that the allowance of pro-ISIS content on YouTube and Twitter directly aided and abetted the terrorist groups who killed the plaintiffs’ loved ones. 

Although neither of these cases found the platforms held liability or held cause to repeal Section 230, they certainly won’t be the last cases to bring up the issue, and they raise important questions. Should online platforms have more oversight in place? Where do we draw the line between free speech and safety?

How the end of Section 230 could change the online world

Arguments for and against the repealing of Section 230 hold merit and weight. However, online forums aren’t the only online space that would undergo drastic changes.

Here are some of the ways the Internet could transform with the end of Section 230:

  • Censorship could run rampant — even on public forums
  • Content creators may find themselves out of jobs; Curation and promotion of content could cease
  • Disorganized content presentation
  • Free speech online could become a thing of the past
  • Free and open Internet sites could disappear forever. Paywalls would exist for all of the websites that we access daily
  • Hate speech and not-too-subtle incitements of violence could rise
  • Online public expression could end 
  • Up-to-date and accurate news may no longer be freely accessible

Why the future of Section 230 matters for cybersecurity

Cybersecurity and federal Internet regulations affect us all, and could change the landscape of online forums. In a rapidly evolving digital world, striking the right balance between protecting online forums and ensuring individual online safety is instrumental in fostering a secure and thriving digital ecosystem. 

By fostering a collaborative approach between policymakers, industry stakeholders, and users, the future of Section 230 can play a pivotal role in fortifying the online landscape against emerging cyber threats. 

It’s vital to understand the impact of Section 230 on your daily online connections, and

an updated approach to cybersecurity and online safety may mean changes to Section 230.  However, the threat of repealing Section 230 entirely could have negative implications on the protection of online forums and users alike. 

Check out the What Is My IP Address website for tools to protect yourself online. Be sure to check out our blog for more insights and tips on cybersecurity.

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