Everyone interested in social media should read Jeff Kosseff’s The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet. It provides an excellent history of Section 230, the legal foundation of social media. That might sound boring, but Kosseff makes it work by mixing stories and analysis without vitiating either. I agree with Kosseff that, problems notwithstanding, the benefits of Section 230 have outweighed its costs.
Given that, I don’t look forward to future editions of his book since they may document the “fall” of Section 230. In other words, the law is likely to be amended to limit the protections offered internet platforms. We have already seen changes meant to combat sex trafficking. Section 230’s most serious persistent vulnerability, however, comes from a mismatch between its statutory language and the larger world the law inhabits.
Our political world is divided between (let’s call them) Progressives and Conservatives. Progressives see society as a struggle between designated oppressor and oppressed groups. No one – not government, not the tech companies – should be neutral between these groups; everyone should favor the oppressed. Since the speech of oppressors is causally essential to the harms experienced by the oppressed, government and the platforms should suppress that speech to help the oppressed. Remember, no one is neutral in this endless struggle.
As it happens, given the extent of Progressive cultural authority, the language of Section 230 favors the Progressive cause. Here’s an edited version of Section 230(c)(2) that clarifies this point:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be…objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected…[emphasis added]
So if content moderators think speech offending the oppressed is “objectionable,” they can banish it from their service.