Section 230 Keeps The Internet Open For Innovation
from the keep-in-that-way dept
Sex-trafficking victims in California are suing Salesforce, claiming the company helped the now-defunct website Backpage, a classified ads website, in enabling prostitution. Whatever your view on the harm to the plaintiffs, this suit could hurt American innovation. By holding Salesforce accountable for the actions of its customer, the suit opens the door for other innovators to be held responsible when users post illegal content ? a dangerous precedent in today?s internet era.
The question of who is responsible for online content is a difficult issue. Intermediary liability protection is the common-sense idea that internet platforms are not responsible for content posted by users. Enshrined in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, this law allowed American companies to be the innovators of the internet. In fact, the internet as we know it functions because of Section 230. Without Section 230, any site hosting user-generated content would have to screen every submission to avoid lawsuits.
On a practical basis, doing this in real time would be impossible due to the sheer amount of content created: Twitter alone hosts 350,000 tweets per minute; 200 billion tweets per year. Similarly, YouTube would be liable for any of the content its 1.9 billion monthly users might upload. If any single user post could lead to legal action against the social media platform, that platform would shut down.
Today’s internet experience would be virtually impossible.
And so Section 230, the cornerstone of today?s innovative internet, was considered inviolable ? until 2018, when Congress was approached by groups representing victims of sex trafficking (and quietly backed by Hollywood studios, the hotel industry and others who saw the chance to weaken online competitors that were taking their customers and disrupting their businesses). While some groups advocating for sex-trafficking victims opposed it, many of these proponents pushed FOSTA/SESTA into law, which allows trial lawyers to sue social media sites that ?facilitate? sex trafficking ? and, although undoubtedly well-intentioned, the bill takes aim at Section 230.
Though (oddly), the Salesforce lawsuit doesn’t invoke FOSTA/SESTA, the law’s hastily written language was so broad and vague it could potentially impose liability to any website with a comments section. And immediately, internet services began pulling down popular forums featuring consumer-generated content. Other websites eliminated sections or imposed broad filters. Congress made the internet experience less rich for users and more difficult for entrepreneurs, all while doing very little to protect actual victims of sex trafficking.
For all the damage done to free speech online, FOSTA/SESTA has had little upside. Backpage was seized by the FBI before the bill was signed into law, proving that FOSTA/SESTA was not necessary to take down wrongdoers. More, FOSTA/SESTA forced sex traffickers underground, making it harder for authorities to identify and rescue victims.
Fortunately, our nation knows how to choose freedom over fear and innovation over regulation. Consider the successful SOPA/PIPA protests of 2012, which pushed back against overbroad copyright laws that would have crushed the burgeoning digital economy. Thanks to the protests, websites with user-generated content continue to flourish today.
Section 230 is the legal foundation of the internet ? not a shield for criminal liability. But it remains an important protection to encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to start internet businesses. We can’t allow misguided rulemaking and ruinous litigation to discourage that. We must keep the internet open for innovation.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the new book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.