Section 230 under attack: Why we must defend online freedom of speech
Imagine a world where your every online utterance is subject to censorship by powerful tech companies and governmental entities. This is the reality that we may soon face if attempts to roll back Section 230 protections are successful. This little-known law, passed in 1996 as part of the federal Communications Decency Act, has been instrumental in protecting online freedom of speech by shielding websites from being held liable for the content their users post. But now, it is under attack from all sides, and if it falls, so too will our digital civil liberties.
The ongoing debate over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has brought the importance of this law — and its role in ensuring a free and open exchange of ideas on the internet — to the forefront of our national discourse. The evidence is clear: Americans will lose out on their ability to speak out & engage with the political process through online platforms and the internet will become far less useful if this law’s key protections are rolled back, further concentrating power over the internet in the hands of the few.
Section 230 is a crucial law that protects online platforms from liability for user-generated content. It has been a topic of much debate in recent years, with some arguing that the law needs to be reformed to hold platforms accountable for the spread of misinformation and harmful content. But others, like myself, take the view that Section 230’s protections are what have allowed the modern internet to flourish by allow platform operators the freedom to run their platforms as they choose — and without bureaucratic red tape restricting their activities.
Section 230 has not only protected our freedom of speech online, but it has also upheld civic engagement by encouraging the development of platforms that promote online public participation. Without it, websites and other platforms on the internet would be forced to heavily moderate their users’ content to avoid legal liability, or close their eyes to harmful content entirely, stifling the free exchange of ideas and opinions that is vital for a functioning democracy. It has also allowed for the creation of new and innovative platforms for community building and organizing, giving a voice to marginalized groups and fostering a more inclusive and diverse public sphere. The ability for individuals to openly share their thoughts and perspectives online has been integral to the development of a well-informed and engaged citizenry.
My view has been informed by my own experience running a large online platform that serves New Jersey. Since I started OPRAmachine in 2017, a civic website that allows New Jersey citizens to easily access and request public records and automatically publish the results of their request online for all to see, I have seen firsthand the vital role that this law plays in ensuring online democracy and civic engagement through a robust, wide-open public debate — and how the law’s immunity provisions allows smaller platforms like ours to stand on an equal playing field in David and Goliath-style battles against wealthy business interests, politicians and governmental entities that might want to squash controversial content & dissenting voices through costly & burdensome legal threats over the contents of public records requests that are uploaded to the website by third-party users.
There is no question that Section 230 has played a crucial role in empowering smaller platforms, like ours, to innovate and flourish with the same parity as “Big Tech” platforms. Without the liability protections afforded by Section 230, many smaller platforms and start-ups would be unable to compete with larger, established companies that have the resources to moderate their users’ content and defend against legal action. This would stifle competition and limit the diversity of voices and perspectives available online. Section 230 allows these smaller platforms to take risks and try new things without the threat of unfounded legal repercussions, fostering a more dynamic and ever-evolving digital landscape. It helps to promote entrepreneurship, fostering innovation and creativity in the development of new platforms.
Many of the drives to reform Section 230 are rooted in concerns about the algorithmic amplification and content moderation practices of large social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter. Both issues are worthy of further scrutiny from lawmakers and civil society groups. However, in their drive to punish “big tech,” policymakers seeking to undermine Section 230 immunity risk creating unintended second and third-order consequences that will stifle the ability of smaller, less algorithmically driven platforms like OPRAmachine to carry out its civic mission & foster online democracy due to a newfound risk of liability for content that platforms had no role in creating. This in turn will create a chilling effect against citizens seeking to speak out online, especially those that might include whistleblowers & those from marginalized groups who have been disparately impacted by current policies.
At its core, my work building out OPRAmachine as a statewide library of public records is about maximizing online freedom of speech through publishing public records requests and promoting a free exchange of information to support civic engagement, journalism & municipal democracy initiatives. Unlike some larger corporate social platforms, we resist unjustified censorship demands and strive to provide a platform for the public to access information and hold government officials accountable, in contrast to the questionable practices that have been undertaken by some in big tech. But without Section 230, our entire ability to facilitate the public records request process by publishing public records requests and responses to provide a window into the sometimes-shadowy world of state & local government would be severely jeopardized – and the public would be worse-off for it.
Without Section 230’s protection, platforms like OPRAmachine could be forced to proactively censor or remove content to avoid legal liability, undermining the very purpose of the platform and preventing citizens from accessing important civic information that can inform their choices at the ballot box and public participation in democratic activities. Worse yet, if Section 230’s foes are successful, it would be open season for frivolous lawsuits aimed at silencing dissenting & anonymous voices on the internet, stifling the public’s right to know in a state where 44% believe politics is a “dirty business,” according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
We call on policymakers to reject any attempts to repeal Section 230 and to support the continued operation of civic engagement platforms like OPRAmachine, which play a vital role in promoting government transparency and civic engagement. The free flow of information is a cornerstone of a democracy and citizens should have access to the information they need to hold their government accountable. In particular, New Jersey residents will be less informed when voting in state & local elections and won’t be able to effectively advocate for change in their communities if Section 230’s liability protections are thrown out by Congress or the Supreme Court.
As a society, we must recognize the importance of protecting online speech and civic engagement, and we must resist any attempts to weaken or repeal this crucial law. This will ensure that the public has access to the information they need to engage in the democratic process and hold government officials accountable, and technology platforms can have the freedom to build innovative solutions to make that happen.