The Supreme Court’s decision on Section 230 is a victory for Big Tech

Google, Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies fueled by social media are avoiding a legal threat that could blow a big hole in their business models.

The US Supreme Court The reprieve was delivered on Thursday by rejecting a lawsuit that said social media platforms should be held accountable for carrying out a deadly attack at a Turkish nightclub and throwing another case back to a lower court.

Those steps, come three months after the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in cases, preserving a law known as Section 230 that protects social media services from being responsible for the material posted on their platforms.

Without the 26-word protection included in the broader US telecommunications reform adopted in 1996, Google, Facebook and other tech companies likely wouldn’t have grown as large as they are today. And their future prospects will be diminished if their platforms are stripped of their legal immunity.

But just because the Supreme Court has sidelined the thorny issue for now doesn’t mean there won’t be other cases brought up that could result in bad decisions down the line. This year’s high-profile oral arguments on the issue also underscored the widely held sentiment that Congress should revisit a law adopted before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was even a tin- teenager

“We don’t really know these things. You know, it’s not like the nine greatest experts on the internet,” Justice Elena Kagan said of herself and her colleagues during oral arguments in February, while adding that the matter could best addressed by US policymakers.


If a news site falsely calls you a fraud, you can sue the publisher for libel. But if someone posts that on Facebook, you can’t sue the company – only the person who posted it.

That’s thanks to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be deemed the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another provider of information content.”

that legal phrase protects companies which can host trillions of messages from suing to oblivion by anyone who feels wronged by something someone else posted — whether or not their complaint is legitimate.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle argue, for various reasons, that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms are abusing that protection and should lose their immunity — or at least it must be obtained by satisfying the requirements set by the government.

Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts that, for example, are obscene or violate the services’ own standards, as long as they act in “good faith. “


The measure’s history dates back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were held liable for selling books that contained “obscenity,” which was not protected by the First Amendment. A case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which believed that it created a “chilling effect” to make one person responsible for the actions of others.

That means plaintiffs must prove the bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, said Jeff Kosseff, author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a book on Section 230.

Fast forward a few decades to when the commercial internet started with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offer online forums, but CompuServe chooses not to moderate them, while Prodigy, seeking a family-friendly image, does.

CompuServe sued for that, and the case was dismissed. However, Prodigy was in trouble. The judge in their case ruled that “they exercised editorial control — so you’re more like a newspaper than a newsstand,” Kosseff said.

That didn’t sit well with politicians, who worried the outcome would discourage new internet companies from moderating. and Section 230 was born.

“Now it protects both from liability for user posts as well as liability for any claims for content moderation,” Kosseff said.


“The main thing we do on the internet is talk to each other. It might be email, it might be social media, it might be message boards, but we’re talking to each other. And a lot of those conversations are enabled by Section 230, which says that whoever allows us to communicate with each other is not responsible for our conversations,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in internet law. “The Court Suprema can easily disturb or eliminate that basic proposition and say that the people who allow us to talk to each other are responsible for those conversations. At what point do they no longer allow us to talk to each other.”

There are two possible outcomes. Platforms may be more cautious, as Craigslist did after the 2018 passage of a sex-trafficking law that placed an exception in Section 230 for material that “promotes or facilitates prostitution.” Craigslist quickly removed the “personals” section, which was not intended to facilitate sex work, at all. But the company doesn’t want to take any chances.

“If the platforms are not immune under the law, then they do not risk the legal liability that may come with hosting the lies, slander, and threats of Donald Trump,” said Kate Ruane, former senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union currently working. for PEN America.

Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter, the YouTube and other platforms may abandon moderation entirely and allow the lowest common denominator to prevail.

Such unmonitored services can quickly become dominated by trolls, such as 8chan, a site notorious for graphic and extremist content.

Any changes to Section 230 are likely to have an impact on online speech worldwide.

“The rest of the world is destroying the internet faster than the US,” Goldman said. “So we’re a step behind the rest of the world in terms of internet censorship. And the question is whether we can keep up on our own.”

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