Today’s heated political arguments over censorship and misinformation online are rooted in a 26-word snippet of a law that created the Internet as we know it.

In partnership with Vox

Trump and Biden Both Want to Repeal Section 230. Would That Wreck the Internet?

Producer: Joseph Hogan
Sr. Producers: Erik German and Karen M. Sughrue
Additional Editor: Joey Sendaydiego

In a collaboration with Open Sourced by Vox, Retro Report looks at how today’s heated political arguments over censorship and misinformation online are rooted in Section 230, a 26-word snippet of a 1996 law that created the Internet as we know it. Now lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want it changed.

Democrats want companies like Facebook to do more to police disinformation. Republicans claiming censorship of conservative views want to make internet companies do less policing. How did the internet get here? In a collaboration with Vox, we took a look back to the years when the internet was just getting started.

Courts had held that internet providers that made an effort to moderate user content were potentially liable for any objectionable content that their users posted. So companies faced a choice: either clean up their websites and risk getting sued, or go totally hands-off, and face no legal consequences.

Legislators wrote a provision into a new law, the Communications Decency Act, that immunized companies from being held liable for any content – comments, retweets, opinions – posted by someone else. That provision, Section 230, became known as the 26 words that created the internet.

“Think about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, even Wikipedia,” Jeff Kossoff, a professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, told us. “None of these business models could exist in their current forms if the platforms had to defend in court the veracity of every single thing that people post.”

The story of Section 230 is the story of the Internet: more and more people posting what they want online, and websites not getting sued for it because of their legal shield.

But to some experts, the broad immunity that Section 230 provides has made some internet companies lazy and irresponsible.

“Section 230 is not a law that protects free speech. Section 230 is a law that protects an industry,” said Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in sexual privacy violations, particularly revenge porn and online abuse.

“Everybody should have the right to be able to sue somebody or a company who has harmed you or is continuing to harm you, she told us. “I see this not as a speech issue, but an access to justice issue.”

Transcript