Section 230 makes “self-publishing” possibleSection 230 made “self-publishing” of Internet content feasible by saying that when you publish something on the Internet, you, not the site which allows you to publish it, bear legal responsibility for that content. Facebook didn’t commit libel, you did. Twitter didn’t utter a true threat, you did. Instagram didn’t post revenge porn, you did. That’s the plain and simple effect of Section 230. “Conservative” Republicans like US Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) want you to believe that Section 230 requires, or should require, sites that allow self-publishing to act as part of a notional “public square.” If those sites moderate “conservative” content — by blocking it, placing warning labels on it, or banning users who post it — Cruz, Hawley, et al. say they’re engaging in “censorship” and shouldn’t be entitled to Section 230’s protections. “Progressive” Democrats get in on the action too, as with the “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act,” a piece of legislation proposed by US Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). It would deprive interactive computer services of Section 230 protection if they promote “extremism” or “hate” by using “an algorithm, model, or other computational processes to rank, order, promote, recommend, amplify, or similarly alter the delivery or display of information.” Let’s unpack those positions by looking back to the age when photocopiers were a key technology for the non-wealthy to disseminate information to large numbers of people. Suppose you run a self-service “copy shop,” and charge 10 cents per page for people to reproduce their flyers, “e-zines,” etc. Common sense (which is what Section 230 boils down to) says that you aren’t responsible for what your customers reproduce on the machines you make available to them.
The duopoly has two wrong ideas for reforming Section 230“Section 230 reform,” Republican version, says that if you refuse the use of your photocopiers to the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, you immediately become the “publisher” of, and legally responsible for, everything copied by all of your OTHER customers. “Section 230 reform,” Democratic version, says that if your machines give the Klan an automatic discount for purchasing large quantities of copies, you are “amplifying” their message and become legally responsible for that message. “Conservative” politicians want to torture social media into obediently promoting “conservative” content. “Progressive” politicians want to torture social media into suppressing “extremist” content. Neither gang seems to care if their waterboarding kills the victim. The rest of us should care very much. We could easily live without those politicians, but most of us wouldn’t want to live without the Internet as we know it. Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is the director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north-central Florida.
Thomas L. Knapp is the director and senior news analyst for the Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism. Knapp is a journalism veteran of over 35 years and a full-time libertarian writer, editor and publisher since 2000.