Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Thinking Through Flaws Borne of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Gilad Edelman, in a paywalled cover story for Wired that I am sure enterprising individuals could find in full elsewhere:

Neither [Trump nor Biden’s] beef with the law is terribly coherent. Section 230 shields platforms from legal liability, but there isn’t anything unlawful in the first place about a sharp-elbowed attack ad that bends the truth. Ditto for Trump’s complaints: Even if social media platforms did discriminate against conservative viewpoints, it’s perfectly legal to have a partisan bias, as every waking second of American life makes clear. More generally, politicians and pundits often seem to blame Section 230 for whatever they happen to dislike about the internet, whether or not it really applies — or they lash out at the law simply because they know it’s precious to companies they loathe.

So, yes, a lot of people who complain about Section 230 don’t know what they’re talking about. And yet the story told by the pro-230 camp contains its share of mythology as well. Section 230 is not the bogeyman of Trump’s stump speeches, but neither is it the pixie dust making the internet a magical place for free speech and innovation. To understand the law, you have to know not just what it says but how it came to be and how it has been interpreted — and sometimes misinterpreted — by judges during its 25-year existence. Once you do that, the picture that emerges is very different from the one painted by either side of the kill-it-or-keep-it debate.

In fact, Section 230 may be more like Dumbo’s supposedly magic feather: a talisman the internet has been clutching for dear life for 25 years, terrified of finding out whether online discourse could fly without it.

I thought this was a well-written essay that raised some of the consequences that have resulted from judicial precedence in the interpretation of Section 230, and how that relates to the history of media law. It is imperfect, however; a good rebuttal comes from Mike Masnick of Techdirt, and reading both of those pieces is worthwhile. In particular, framing the debates over Section 230 as “kill it or keep it” obviously misses a lot of nuance.