The State Of The World, And Why We Need Section 230

from the don't-do-what-putin-wants dept

I have heard rumors from multiple quarters that President Biden might mention Section 230 in tonight’s State of the Union speech, and I cannot think of any reason he should, unless it is to venerate it. Because it is only through the existence of Section 230 that we, or the world, stand a chance against the threats we face, especially right now.

In any crisis there is always the impetus to use the moment to advance one’s position and claim how what is happening illustrates how everything you’ve been arguing for has been right all along. But sometimes the correctness of that position is exactly what the moment is showing. And such is the case right now.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is providing testament to the critical importance of free speech, including online free speech, and the legal constructs that enable it. Dangerous people like Putin depend on silence to wreak their destruction so that their actions can proceed undetected and undeterred by dissent. As we see Putin demand his own people be disconnected from the Internet, and engage in tactics designed to disconnect everyone else, this is why: because free discourse is a powerful defense against tyrants, and it is one he does not want to confront.

People always need to talk to each other, and sometimes their very survival, let alone the future political stability of their nation, depends on being able to share ideas and information. The Internet is an amazing tool that enables such an exchange of expression, to a degree that is without precedent or substitute. It, and the Section 230 statute that enables it to be this fantastic global tool for keeping people connected, is a tremendous gift we years ago gave to our future selves, and one we would today be infinitely poorer without. This war is but one example of how much so.

Which is not to say that everything is perfect with the Internet and all the ways people use it. We have never before lived in a time when all people everywhere could be connected. But there is no simple solution to any of the hard challenges our new digitally-interconnected life has revealed. We should not pretend there is, and we certainly should not delude ourselves into believing that Section 230 is some low-hanging fruit that if plucked would miraculously fix all our problems without creating countless more, some of them much worse.

Because it would be doing a tyrant like Putin’s bidding to take any step that would end up crippling the ability to speak and exchange information online, and to take such stark, consequential action that would affect all speakers everywhere simply because some have used their speech rights poorly. When people abuse power, speech is what gives those they would hurt the power to stand against them. And the Internet is what allows us all to hear them. Yet every time lawmakers flirt with repealing Section 230, routing around Section 230, or even “reforming” Section 230, that’s the fate that they invite: a world without the Internet, and without this critically important way for people to stay connected with each other at a time when they most need to.

Every time we glibly try to mess with this essential statutory protection Internet services depend on to provide the services speakers around the world depend on, we threaten to destroy the very thing that evens our odds against totalitarian danger. The absurdity of this regulatory call to harm Section 230, and therefore the Internet, and therefore the world, should therefore be apparent. At a time when we most need to defend our principles and our friends, it makes absolutely no sense to disarm ourselves and take away the world’s best weapon against the threats we all face. The Internet lets people speak, and there is nothing to be gained by ever making it so they can’t – but especially not now. It is no time to do anything to curtail speech and leave the people desperately calling for the world’s help as isolated as their attackers want them to be.

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Comments on “The State Of The World, And Why We Need Section 230”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Without 230 the lies coming out of Congress would be unchallenged.
They scream how they are being silenced for being conservatives while talking about jewish space lasers, how Jan 6 was JUST like a regular tourist visit.

Putin controls the media & there are people who believe that the USA attacked Russia & that caused the problems in Ukraine. Anyone who claims otherwise is silenced allowing the lies to spread.

I guess that Congress wants a population that never considers challenging what they are being told, because informed citizens might end up questioning why these lies keep being told & see that they’ve been played by figures who care only to keep themselves in power even if 800K people have to die.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

I agree with all the above section 230 is vital to protect free speech and also to protect small websites that speak for minoritys from trolls spammers and random legal action that would erase their funding . But section 230 is a US law many country’s like Poland Russia Germany have no equivalent to section 230 and free speech is not guaranteed to the extent of USA law, in many country’s especially for protestors or critics of governments even in all EU countrys. For some reason Politicans have decided now is the time to limit section 230 even though it has been shown that is vital for free speech and political commentary and discussion since almost everyone uses online apps or forums to discuss politics or organise support for political causes

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The reason why most nations don’t have a direct section 230 equivalent is partly because it’s not necessary – protections such as having to hold the speaker and not the platform liable are already baked into existing law, partly because most countries don’t instantly go to lawsuits to resolve disputes the way the US does, and partly because the 1st amendment that section 230 is meant to bolster also doesn’t exist.

The fact that we don’t have certain things written down the same way doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have the same rights, it’s just that legal systems that have been around for centuries will obviously different in ways that mean there’s no direct comparison.

Cathy Gellis (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Europe v US

That’s a common view but I don’t think I quite buy it. I think a bigger reason for no 230 in, say, Europe, is that, at least in Europe, there was the ecommerce directive, which swallowed up all the oxygen, just good enough that there could be nothing better.

I also don’t think that culturally the EU has taken speech protection as seriously as in the US overall. It pays lip service to the idea, but is perfectly willing to throw it under the bus culturally and legally whenever the issues get sticky. (In the US we also sometimes do culturally, but the law is more hardened in favor of speech protection.)

You may have a point about lawsuit frequency, but then again there are also conspicuously fewer European start-ups in Europe (although there several reasons for that).

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:2

You may have a point about lawsuit frequency, but then again there are also conspicuously fewer European start-ups in Europe (although there several reasons for that).

I think one of the reasons Europe lagged behind the USA in regards to start-ups and technology was due to WWII, most of Europe was gutted afterwards and most of the efforts went into rebuilding. The USA on the other hand had a industry running at full tilt which they could pivot to post-war production of consumer goods etc and that also allowed them to leverage that potential into new technology companies. This is of course a very simplified take on the post-war situation but it does explain the disparity in start-ups and technology companies without getting into details.

bluegrassgeek (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

I also don’t think that culturally the EU has taken speech protection as seriously as in the US overall.

That’s a rather insulting way of phrasing it. Another way is that the EU doesn’t think that hate speech and other forms of abusive speech are worthy of protection, and the USA is far too lenient towards such behavior.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Free speech

That’s a rather insulting way of phrasing it.

I don’t consider it insulting. From what I’ve read, it seems freedom of speech isn’t quite as high a priority in Europe as it is in the US, whereas privacy is far more important. Both are important principles and there’s no objective standard to say where the balancing point should be.

Cathy Gellis (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Several points

It’s not insulting. It’s the upshot of what you point out. I can’t tell you how many Europeans speak of “balancing” speech. And I don’t think it’s unfair to think that any approach that allows speech to ever be subordinated like that is an approach that reflects limits in how much it is valued.

Also, re: WWII, I disagree, mostly. There was some tech investment that came from the military and went through schools that then affected what tech businesses were spawned (ex: HP). But there are also differences in corporate laws, employment law, and other ancillary law that bear on how easy it is to launch a start-up in the US and EU. (But the liability protection differences also matter a lot.)

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:5

Look at the differences in post-war GDP, the US consistently outperformed European countries by a minimum of 30% and they had an intact industry which they in 1944 already had plans for how to switch over to peacetime production. The US also had the benefit of the Bretton Woods Agreement (until 1971) and those factors combined with some of what you mentioned led to a climate very fertile for start-ups which was lacking in Europe.

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