The Push for Stricter Rules for Internet Platforms

scissors and paper clips on text of Section 230 - Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

The Push for Stricter Rules for Internet Platforms
Communications of the ACM, March 2021, Vol. 64 No. 3, Pages 26-28
Legally Speaking
By Pamela Samuelson

“Considering the origins, interpretations, and possible changes to Communications Decency Act § 230 amid an evolving online environment.”


One of the few things about which U.S. Republican and Democratic politicians generally agree these days is that the law widely known as § 230 of the Communications Decency Act needs to be repealed, amended, or reinterpreted.


Section § 230(c)(1) provides Internet platforms with a shield from liability as to information content posted by others. It states that “[n]o 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.”


Although computing professionals might question whether these 26 words truly “created the Internet,”a Internet platform companies and most technology law specialists would say this characterization is only a slight exaggeration, at least as to sites that host user-posted content.


Although Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both recommended that Congress repeal this provision, their reasons are starkly different. Trump and other Republican critics think Internet platforms take down too much content in reliance on this law. They claim platforms are biased against conservative viewpoints when they remove or demote such postings. Democratic critics of § 230 blame Internet platforms for not taking down more harmful content, such as disinformation about COVID-19 or elections. They think repealing or amending § 230 would make platforms more responsible participants in civil society.


Short of repeal, several initiatives aim to change § 230. Eleven bills have been introduced in the Senate and nine in the House of Representatives to amend § 230 in various ways. President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to engage in rule-making to interpret § 230 more narrowly than courts have done. Moreover, Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court recently criticized court decisions giving a broad interpretation of § 230, signaling receptivity to overturning them.


This column explains the origins of § 230 and its broad interpretation. It then reviews proposed changes and speculates about what they would mean for Internet platforms.

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About the Author:

Pamela Samuelson is the Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.