Section 230: Guarantor of Liberty or Tyranny

Carol Blaney couldn’t understand what was happening. Her phone was ringing constantly but when she answered it, there was no response. Blaney worried that her customers to her bakery couldn’t get through. When one of her regulars entered the bakery, she was shocked by what she was told. Apparently someone had been posting rumors about the bakery on social media. The rumors were outrageous and totally without merit.

As Blaney thought about who would do such a thing, she became convinced the slander campaign was retaliation for baking a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Blaney didn’t know the source of the rumors, but they could be coming from only a number of people in the homophobic community where she lived.

She asked the son of a family friend for help. He was a cybersecurity major and was good at tracking down the origins of online communications, but in this case he had no luck. It appeared that the social media posts were untraceable.

Then she turned to a local attorney for help in getting the social media companies to shut down the posts. “I’d like to help,” Charlotte Webb, her attorney said. “But I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.”

“Section 230 says that websites can’t be held responsible for what users post. It also says that the websites have total control over what content they allow. If you were to convince the social media sites to take down the offensive content, additional content would quickly replace it. It looks like you have become a campaign target for an international anti-LGBTQ group.”

“The courts won’t even consider a case like yours. The intent of Congress was clearly to protect free speech on the internet. The legal shield provided by Congress seems to be impenetrable.  Free speech seems to be sacrosanct even if such speech is hateful or destructive.”

Are there limits to free speech? The courts have imposed such limits in a few cases. But courts have honored legislative intent when it comes to the internet. The result has been a proliferation of misinformation, hate speech, and conspiracy theories. When is enough, enough? Only time will tell. But can a democracy survive when the lack of truth is so prevalent?

Just imagine how you might regulate content on the internet that protects free speech but provides protection against destructive speech? Just imagine what it might take for Congress to rewrite Section 230? Just imagine how successful a social media company might be if it polices its users’ content.

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“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”
Salman Rushdie (Author)

(1)Ground Truth is what is actually happening in society rather than what is being said is happening.

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