You could argue that some of the most important words in society today are found in a relatively obscure law crafted in 1996. That was the year Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (you’ll be forgiven if you were otherwise consumed with the Macarena, cloning, or Michael Johnson). The Communications Decency Act included what are known as the “26 words that created the internet.” Those 26 words are:
“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.”
These 26 words, widely regarded as the foundation of Section 230 in the law, provide internet platforms with liability protections from the content on their sites. Importantly, they have also helped the internet become nearly ubiquitous, making our lives more convenient, more productive, and more prosperous.
Fast forward to 2023, and we find a Congress laser focused on reforming the law. Congress’ interests in reforms are primarily centered around the idea that platforms should be prohibited from 1) hosting dangerous content online, and 2) censoring viewpoints they do not agree with. Whether or not lawmakers can find agreement to pass Section 230 reforms this Congress, committees are full steam ahead in holding hearings to examine the topic.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held a hearing titled “Platform Accountability: Gonzalez and Reform” in which Senators explored the real world effects of reforming Section 230. The hearing was especially troubling in that just one of the five witnesses had any tangible experiences on what Section 230 would mean for the internet. Andrew Sullivan, President and CEO of the Internet Society was steadfast in his defense of the law, correctly pointing out that an outright repeal of Section 230 would greatly restrict the flow of free speech as platforms would limit what can and cannot be seen by internet users for fear of being on the wrong side of a frivolous lawsuit. He also noted that scrapping Section 230 would do irreparable harm to small- and medium-sized firms, as only the largest companies with legions of attorneys on staff would be able to navigate the new landscape. What was left unsaid, notably by the witness hoping to do away with Section 230, is the wild idea that content creators should be held responsible for what they create.
For our part, the Developers Alliance joined a letter signed by more than three dozen other industry associations, civil society organizations, and internet experts. The letter detailed our belief in the internet as a tool to build communities, lift up marginalized groups, hold the powerful accountable, and to connect and learn. Our letter was sent to subcommittee members ahead of the hearing and was entered into the hearing record.
As Congress moves forward with this especially thorny issue we hope it continues to take into account the views of those on the ground with real world internet experiences. The Developers Alliance is ready to weigh-in during future deliberations. Absent a smart and measured approach to Section 230 reforms, the internet ecosystem could be turned on its head.