"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."
Back when I was the online editor of The State Journal-Register, this sentence went through my mind often as I kept track of the flood of reader comments that appeared under the online version of our journalists’ news stories.
I was thankful for these words – which come from Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act in federal law. While I and my staff did our best to monitor the heated online conversations so they didn’t explode into a hate-filled, personal-attack-laden Dumpster fire, we inevitably couldn’t catch everything.
Often called “the 26 words that created the internet,” this portion of Section 230 largely protected the newspaper from being held liable for material others posted on its website.
Another key provision of Section 230 protects website publishers from legal action if they take “any action voluntarily taken in good faith” to remove users’ content from their sites. I was grateful for that portion of the law, too, as we sifted through message boards and deleted posts that took away from the civil tone we were trying to foster.
I’ve been out of the newsroom for almost a year now, and I hadn’t thought about Section 230 much until late last month, when President Trump tore into the law after Twitter, one of his preferred methods of communicating with the world, added advisories to a few of his tweets.
On May 26, Twitter fact-checked two posts the president wrote about mail-in ballots being “substantially fraudulent.” Two days later, the company slapped a violation notice onto a Trump tweet about the rioting that occurred after the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Twitter said the president’s post was “glorifying violence,” although they allowed it to remain visible.
Trump responded to Twitter’s actions on May 28 by signing an executive order seeking to curb some protections in Section 230. In true Trump fashion, he followed up the order the following days with one of his signature all-caps tweets: “REVOKE 230!”
It’ll take an act of Congress to make substantial changes to the CDA. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, becomes of it.
When I was overseeing the online comment boards at SJ-R, I tried to wield my power of the “delete” button as fairly as I could. I think I did OK, judging by the angry calls and emails I’d get from both Republicans and Democrats who had their posts axed by me and my staff.
But as the internet has grown exponentially over the past 24 years, and behemoth companies like Facebook and Twitter have the ability to control content that appears in front of millions of people every day, is some rethinking of Section 230 in order?
Free speech remains a foundational right for all Americans. But do the efforts of communication companies to control what people say and how they say it stifle free speech?
And if Section 230 is changed, reducing its protections for online publishers, what will happen? You think Facebook will just let you unload a libelous post about that plumber you accuse of ripping you off if there’s a chance the plumber can sue Facebook? What will that do to the large platforms these sites provide for people to be heard?
Jason Piscia, Public Affairs Reporting Director and Assistant Professor, is a 1998 PAR graduate who returned to the University of Illinois Springfield following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register. He was the newspaper’s first-ever online editor, in charge of managing the SJ-R’s website, and was promoted to digital managing editor, directing coverage and overseeing production for both the SJ-R digital and print editions.
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