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Section 230 Was Supposed to Make the Internet a Better Place. It Failed

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The 230 document.

Congress is considering revisiting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Internet companies from liability for most of the material their users post.

Credit: Molly Cranna/Bloomberg Businessweek

One afternoon in July, Ted Cruz banged a gavel on the dais, calling to order a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. The day's first witness was Karan Bhatia, a top policy adviser for Google. He gazed up at the panel of senators, alarm creeping into his expression, like a 10-point buck hearing the sudden crack of gunfire.

When elected officials start appending the prefix "big" to the name of an industry, it's never a good omen. Big Tobacco. Big Oil. Big Pharma. Big Soda. "Sometimes tech companies talk about their products and the effects of those products as though they are forces outside of Big Tech's control," Cruz said. "As we've heard time and time again, Big Tech's favorite defense is, 'It wasn't me. The algorithm did it.' "

For the next couple hours, the senators took turns walloping the most despised industry of the moment. They knocked its carelessness with consumer data, its violations of individual privacy, its tolerance of harassment and misinformation, its censorship of political dissent, and its hospitality toward extremists. "It seems like the problems around Big Tech, as it has become a mature industry, are just mushrooming," said Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. Perhaps it was time, Cruz rejoined, for Congress to revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a slim and powerful law, cherished in Silicon Valley, that shields internet companies from liability for most of the material their users post.

Back in 1995, when the CDA was conceived, Section 230 enjoyed bipartisan support from members of Congress, who believed that tech companies would do a better job at moderating the internet than federal regulators. But a growing number of hostile lawmakers are now criticizing Big Tech's safe harbor. Cruz, a Texas Republican, and other conservatives have accused major internet platforms of suppressing their viewpoints, arguing that the spirit of Section 230 is predicated on the companies remaining politically neutral. Democrats call that nonsense; still, liberals have found reasons to dislike the law, namely their belief that tech businesses have too often used it to ignore the collateral damage of their users' bad behavior.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said during the hearing that patience with the industry's careless approach to user safety had run out. "You can't simply unleash the monster and say it's too big to control," he said. "You have a moral responsibility even if you have that legal protection."

Silicon Valley is unlikely to give up its shield without a fight. Supporters credit Section 230 with helping transform the primordial net into a trillion-dollar industry and securing today's vibrant culture of free expression. The most important piece of the law is just 26 words long, and yet it's profoundly shaped American life. It's no hyperbole to call Section 230 the foundation on which the modern internet was built, from social media to search engines to ­open source reference guides to the sharing economy. Getting rid of it, Big Tech warns, could jeopardize many of the things on the web we take for granted, from reading and writing product reviews to watching amateur how-to videos on YouTube.

Take it away, and the whole thing could come crumbling down.


From Bloomberg Businessweek
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