Fix Section 230 and hold tech companies to account
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In the internet’s earliest days, all we saw was its promise. The nascent technology was celebrated for its ability to connect strangers and to ease the purchase of staples. Internet evangelizers promised a transformation in public dialogue and commerce – if law got out of the way, just as it had when the early railways and steam-run factories got their start. American lawmakers sided with the new inventors, young men (yup, all men) who made assurances that they could be trusted with our safety and privacy. In 1996, US Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which secured a legal shield for online service providers that under- or over-filtered third-party content (so long as aggressive filtering was done in good faith). It meant that tech companies were immune to lawsuits when they removed, or didn’t remove, something a third party posted on their platforms. But, thanks to overbroad court rulings, Section 230 ended up creating a law-free zone. The US has the ignominious distinction of being a safe haven for firms hosting illegality. This isn’t just an American pathology: Because the dominant social media companies are global, illegality they host impacts people worldwide. Indeed, safety ministers in South Korea and Australia tell me that they can help their citizens only so much, since abuse is often hosted on American platforms. Section 230 is to social media companies what the Cayman Islands has long been to the banking industry.