New Op-Ed: People Who Understand Section 230 Actually Love It

[Published in the San Jose Mercury-News, January 10, 2021]

Section 230, which says that websites aren’t liable for third-party content, has developed an increasingly bad reputation. In December, Pres. Trump vetoed a critical $740 billion military funding bill because Congress didn’t include a repeal of Section 230. Other DC insiders have criticized Section 230 as facilitating online “censorship” or a “gift” to Big Tech. Not surprisingly, after the withering criticism our elected politicians have directed towards Section 230, many Americans have become skeptical of the law.

Unfortunately, Section 230’s plummeting reputation reflects widespread and significant misunderstandings about what the law says. Section 230 simply says that bad actors online are accountable for their wrongdoing, but others don’t share that responsibility.

For most people, Section 230’s allocation of responsibility makes intuitive sense. Indeed, a survey conducted in 2020 by the Knight Foundation and Gallup confirmed this common-sense principle.

The pollsters first asked survey respondents if they supported Section 230. A small majority said no. Then, the pollsters asked which approach survey respondents thought was best:

  • “Change [Section 230] and allow people to sue internet companies for content posted on their websites by an individual that causes them harm,” or
  • “Keep the law so that people cannot sue internet companies, but only the individual who posted the content on the website that causes them harm.”

An overwhelming majority (66% to 31%) favored keeping the law rather than changing it. In other words, even if people oppose Section 230 by name, most people actually agree with Section 230’s consequences.

The Knight/Gallup survey result exposes a troubling schism between DC politicians and their constituents. Despite their constituents’ broad support for Section 230’s principles, numerous DC politicians are working hard to repeal Section 230. They view Section 230 as just another bargaining chit for their political negotiations.

However, it would be terrible if they actually “won” these negotiations. Section 230 is the heart of the modern Internet. Virtually every Internet service you love depends on Section 230—including both critical services (such as Wikipedia’s online encyclopedia and consumer review services) and sources of daily joy (such as viral TikTok videos). Whether we realize it or not, we benefit from Section 230-protected services dozens of time each day.

Section 230 also has played a critical role in our response to the COVID pandemic. When COVID shut down school campuses, students kept learning through online videoconferencing services such as Zoom; and when COVID shut down our retail stores in physical space, online marketplaces provided a much-needed virtual alternative. Videoconferencing services, online marketplaces, and many other pandemic-coping services are available only because of Section 230’s legal protection. Without Section 230, our country could not have quickly and effectively implemented shutdowns, and that would have exacerbated the public health crisis.

The stakes associated with Section 230 reform are enormous. This is a question that Congress absolutely must get right. That’s why it’s mind-boggling when DC politicians treat Section 230 like a political football to be tossed around casually. When politicians say that they support repealing Section 230, what they are really saying is that they want to destroy the Internet services that you most depend upon and love the most.

Thus, don’t assume your Congressmembers are committed to protecting your Internet. There’s strong evidence they don’t realize just how passionately their constituents care about the Internet and how upset their constituents will be if they damage Section 230’s principles. So, tell them.

About the author: Eric Goldman is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, Santa Clara, California. He has taught Internet Law for a quarter-century, since before Congress enacted Section 230.

BONUS: A roundup of my publications on Section 230