Where 'Section 230' fits in the social media censorship war
In the past few months, you may have noticed headlines about lawsuits being filed, be it by PragerU, Laura Loomer, or former Google employees against social media giants with claims that they are actively censoring and discriminating against conservatives on their platforms. All of these cases cite the elusive "Section 230" as their basis.
There are some misconceptions about what Section 230 is. Sometimes referred to as CDA 230, it was written into the Communications Decency Act of 1996 by Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The act was passed in 1997 with bipartisan support and was the response to a landmark Supreme Court decision the year before against the financial internet bulletin board Money Talks, run by a company called Prodigy, in a suit brought by the investment firm Stratton Oakmont. (Later, the case would be the basis for the Hollywood movie Wolf of Wall Street.)
Anonymous users with airs of authority had posted false information that the president of Stratton Oakmont was involved in criminal fraud, and some people lost a lot of money as a result of the defamation. Eventually, a civil case was filed to sue Prodigy. The court essentially had to rule whether these sites were more like newspapers or libraries — publisher or platform. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and held Prodigy liable for damages since it had "editorial control" over the content on its sites.
The Communications Decency Act was then created to prevent these lawsuits in the future and legally protect the first internet forums from liability for any falsehoods and vileness in their posts and comments. Specifically, Section 230 has been cited as the one line of federal code that has more economic value than any other and the reason social media giants exist today, as well as the bedrock of free speech on the internet.
But it's also the reason for the worst stuff on the internet, having served to protect sites like Twitter when they host revenge porn, gruesome videos, violent death threats, ISIS videos, and more.
The 1996 CDA was finally amended in 2018 when the Backpage.com lawsuit regarding sex-trafficking of minors blew up. Politicians tried to use Backpage.com's issue of minors being hosted in their "adult services" sections to claim that the internet service, which mirrored Craigslist, was not only invested in, but also aiding in illegal sex-trafficking of children. Presidential candidate Kamala Harris publicly stated that Backpage was "selling children."
However, in secret memos obtained by Reason, we see that this isn't true. Years before, investigations were launched and then continuing while the site was under the legal spotlight. Backpage, it turned out, was actively involved with the FBI and police to stop these abuses on its site.
However, Backpage lost the case when this information was withheld from the court proceedings, and the Department of Justice shut down Backpage in 2018 and arrested some of the executives. Section 230 was redefined in the process.
An amendment to Section 230 was interpreted to the effect that social media sites must be actively policing their sites for issues that affect their users' well-being. This is when the community guidelines of Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Facebook really started to evolve into the vague monsters they are today. Now the entire purpose of Section 230 is to screen and remove objective material. However, to have to protection under CDA 230, the "interactive computer services" must "offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity."
The argument isn't whether social media should be allowed to edit, moderate, and remove content by their users. The purpose of the CDA and Section 230 is to give them that control while treating them as a platform. The true debate is whether they are purposely targeting conservatives and affecting public political discourse.
It's easy to see that they are, and most users, even liberal ones, agree that conservatives are disproportionately censored by all big social media networks. These tech giants argue in their defense that regardless of whether they consider right-leaning views more likely to violate their community standards, conservative users still have larger engagement, offering data that Fox News has way more social media traffic than their liberal competition like CNN and MSNBC.