21 February 2023
Twenty-six words were included in what is known as Section 230 of the 1996 law setting telecommunication policies in the United States.
Those words have enabled companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the giant technology companies they are today.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing challenges to the law on whether those companies are responsible for what users posted on their services.
In Gonzalez v. Google, the justices will decide whether the family of an American college student killed in a terror attack in Paris can sue Google, which owns YouTube. The family claims the video service's algorithm helped extremists spread their message.
The second case, Twitter v. Taamneh, also centers on legal responsibility. It involves a Jordanian citizen killed in Istanbul, Turkiye.
The results of these cases could reshape the internet as we know it. Section 230 will not be easily changed. But if it is, online speech could be greatly changed.
What is section 230?
If a news organization or website falsely accuses you of harmful things, you can take legal action against the publisher for libel. Libel is a published false statement about someone and is a crime.
But if someone posts a libelous statement on Facebook, you cannot sue Facebook. You can only sue the person who posted it.
In this case, Facebook is protected under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The law says that "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."
That legal statement protects companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued by anyone who feels wronged by something someone else has posted.
Section 230 also permits social media services to moderate their services. They can remove posts that, for example, are obscene or violate the services' standards.
The measure's history dates to the 1950s. At the time, bookstore owners were being held legally responsible for selling books containing "obscenity," which is not protected by the First Amendment. One case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it created a "chilling effect" to hold someone responsible for someone else's content.
Now, lawmakers from both Republican and Democratic parties have argued that social media websites have misused that protection and should lose it. Some argue that the companies should have to meet requirements set by the government.
What happens if Section 230 goes away?
Eric Goldman is a professor at Santa Clara University specializing in internet law. He said the main thing people do on the internet is to communicate with each other. And a lot of that communication is made possible by Section 230. The law says that tech companies that permit people to communicate are not responsible for the discussions, he said.
Goldman said that if protections for services permitting people to communicate are removed "they won't allow us to talk to each other anymore."
There are two possible results.
Services might be more careful with content. For example, in 2018, a law was passed that created an exception to Section 230 for material that helps with sex work. The advertising service Craigslist removed its "personals" area that was taken over by those who used it for sex work.
Another possibility is that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others could stop moderating materials on their services altogether. However, the unmoderated services could easily end up with a lot of harmful content.
Any change to Section 230 is likely to have strong effects on online speech around the world.
Goldman noted that the rest of the world is taking measures against internet companies faster than the U.S. "So we're a step behind the rest of the world in terms of censoring the internet. And the question is whether we can even hold out on our own."
I'm Jill Robbins.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
challenge — v. to say or show that may not be true, correct, or legal
sue — v. to use a legal process by which you try to get a court of law to force a person, company, or organization that has treated you unfairly or hurt you in some way to give you something or to do something
algorithm — n. a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process
libel — n. the act of publishing a false statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone
interactive — adj. designed to respond to the actions, commands, etc., of a user
obscene — adj. very offensive in usually a shocking way
chilling— adj. very disturbing or frightening
allow — v. to permit
censor — v. a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.