From The Wall Street Journal:
Americans are of two minds about the internet: They rely on it and fear it, they immerse themselves in it for hours and deplore its social consequences. Even some tech writers, people who a decade ago gushed about the web’s limitless possibilities for connectedness and free expression, now frequently sound like Gollum emoting about the Ring. It’s still their precious, but they hates it.
Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” is in many ways the story of how and why this happened. The 26 words are these: “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.” They form Section 230 of the otherwise irrelevant Communications Decency Act, itself a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Without them the internet would play a very different, and a much smaller, role in our lives.
Section 230 shields online platforms from legal liability for content generated by third-party users. Put simply: If you’re harassed by a Facebook user, or if your business is defamed by a Yelp reviewer, you might be able to sue the harasser or the reviewer, assuming you know his or her identity, but don’t bother suing Facebook or Yelp. They’re probably immune. That immunity is what enabled American tech firms to become far more than producers of content (the online versions of newspapers, say, or company websites) and to harness the energy and creativity of hundreds of millions of individual users. The most popular sites on the web—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Reddit, Wikipedia, Amazon—depend in part or in whole on user-generated content.
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The crucial moment came a few years later when someone—it was never clear who—posted an accusatory rant about the president of a brokerage firm to a message board hosted by the online service Prodigy. The firm, Stratton Oakmont, sued Prodigy for punitive damages. In 1995 a New York state judge ruled, in Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, in favor of the brokerage firm on the grounds that Prodigy, unlike its competitor CompuServe, exercised editorial control over user-generated content hosted on the site. Advancing technology was just then making content generated by users—comments, reviews, photos, videos—a more pronounced feature of online services. The Stratton Oakmont decision raised the possibility that aggrieved parties could sue the pixels off these companies if, like Prodigy, they moderated user content in any way.
That, in essence, is why Ron Wyden and Chris Cox, then members of the U.S. House, wrote Section 230. The results are everywhere around us. The U.S. was able to cultivate online companies in ways that other countries—even countries in the developed world—could not. Social-media companies, for example, could never have flourished in Canada or the European Union, where laws don’t shield online platforms from liability to the degree Section 230 does. In American law, Mr. Kosseff rightly says, “the Internet is different.”
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Mr. Kosseff acknowledges the dreadful problems caused by internet exceptionalism, but he still sides, reluctantly, with Section 230. “I remain convinced that the massive industry, social change, and free speech that we have seen since 1996 would not have been possible without Section 230.” Clearly there is truth in that, and in any case Section 230 isn’t going anywhere for the simple reason that Congress isn’t going to wreck the tech industry. But I’m not sure user-driven web platforms have brought about even the happy results Mr. Kosseff alludes to. “Massive” social change? Yes, if by that we mean the destruction of local newspapers, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and crank politics, and the cultivation of an entire class of educated people who think Twitter is reality. “Massive” free speech? They’ve given us more speech, for sure, but they’ve also enabled stupid and vicious verbiage to drown out reasonable speech and encouraged a younger generation to wonder what the point of free speech was in the first place.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)