In the early days of the Internet, its primary users were academics who saw it as a forum for the free exchange of ideas. As such, it was afforded some legal protection by Section 230, which says:
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’s Section 230 in its entirety—short, sweet, straightforward. However, as we know, no good deed goes unpunished. Today, much of the internet is used as to present falsehoods, launch attacks, conduct illegal transactions, etc. all while remaining anonymous.
Why? Section 230 treats “interactive computer services” as conduits, like telephone companies. The phone company (supposedly) neither knows nor cares about what you say on the phone. On the other hand, newspapers, radio, and television must adhere to certain guidelines. For example, they cannot broadcast the tone used by the National Weather Service for emergencies unless it’s either an emergency or a clearly identified test. Likewise, certain language is prohibited.
The infamous website Backpage, protected by Section 230 until it was shut down, acted as a link for sex—including sex with minors. How many of these “sex workers” were, in fact, victims of human trafficking?
So, what’s the difference between communication and content providers? I see at least two major differences:
- Telephone conversations are between two people or, in the case of a conference call, to a group of people who choose to participate. In any case, the audience is limited in some manner.
- Mass media, like newspapers, radio, and television are intended to be available to anyone.
To my mind, social media are, today, more like mass media. In fact, I don’t see a fundamental difference. So why aren’t they regulated like other mass media?
The owners of social media have made so much money that I believe it is unlikely, if not impossible, for any control to be imposed.
When I write a blog, even when I’m aggressively challenging someone’s position, I endeavor to write factually, civilly, and coherently. I hope someday, this will be the norm. With Section 230 in place, this is unlikely.