In 1996, when the internet was still unexplored territory for most Americans, the U.S. Congress passed a telecommunications law that included a provision its supporters meant to protect free speech online. More than 20 years later, that provision, known as Section 230, is seen as crucial to the business models of some of the world’s most valuable companies including Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google -- and as a key factor in the ever-deepening swamp of harassment, toxic behavior and misinformation.

1. What is Section 230?

It’s a small but powerful part of the Communications Decency Act that was originally marketed by its bipartisan sponsors as a “Good Samaritan” law for the internet. The statute has two key provisions. It (a) shields internet companies from liability for most of the material their users post and (b) gives the companies legal immunity concerning “any action voluntarily taken in good faith” to remove materials from their platforms.

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2. Why does Section 230 matter?

During the early days of the World Wide Web, the passage of Section 230 gave tech companies broad leeway to moderate discussions and postings within their internet communities as they saw fit. That helped make it possible for websites to host large amounts of user-generated content, setting off the social-media revolution and transforming the primordial net into a trillion-dollar industry. Supporters of Section 230 credit it with securing today’s vibrant culture of free expression online.

3. Why is it controversial now?

When Section 230 was passed, the leading internet companies were fledgling operations seen as being in need of protection. Now they’re the overlords of the U.S. economy. That shift in power means Section 230 cases frequently result in the spectacle of a tech giant squashing the complaints of users and smaller websites. Critics argue that over time, thanks to its myriad victories in court by big internet companies, Section 230’s protections have grown overly broad.

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4. What do detractors dislike about Section 230?

A number of both liberal and conservative lawmakers have questioned whether it might make sense to revise Section 230. Republican critics have blamed the statute for enabling tech companies to be overly zealous in removing certain material, which they say has resulted in unfair bias against conservative viewpoints. Meanwhile, liberal critics have accused tech companies of using Section 230’s immunity to ignore the collateral damage of their users’ bad behavior.

5. For example?

In 2017, a group of locksmith companies filed a lawsuit in D.C. district court alleging that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! were indirectly profiting by enabling scam locksmith services to flood search results with bogus information — thereby forcing “legitimate” locksmiths to buy costly ads from the search giants to stand out from the mess. The tech companies claimed Section 230 immunity, and the district court ruled in their favor. The locksmiths appealed. In June 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington affirmed the dismissal, finding that Section 230 shields tech companies against liability from bogus information provided by third parties even when their platforms enhance the fake material, for example, by creating digital maps featuring local addresses for scam businesses that in reality aren’t there.

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6. Are there exceptions to Section 230’s protections?

Yes. Federal criminal liability and intellectual property claims are specifically exempted from Section 230’s protections. In 2018, federal lawmakers also exempted cases involving online sex trafficking.

To contact the reporter on this story: Felix Gillette in New York at fgillette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Golum at rgolum@bloomberg.net, John O’Neil

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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