Section 230: A Key Legal Shield For Facebook, Google Is About To Change

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It's possible you've never heard of Section 230, and yet your life online has likely been shaped by this landmark law. It's described by many as a core pillar of Internet freedom, and its history runs through some of the darkest corners of the web. In the coming weeks at NPR, we're going to be exploring free speech in the digital age. And we begin with looking at the origins and the unexpected consequences of Section 230. Here's NPR's Alina Selyukh.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It's 1995, and Chris Cox is sitting on a plane reading a newspaper.

CHRISTOPHER COX: I was on a flight from California to Washington.

SELYUKH: He is a lawmaker in Republican House leadership.

COX: I was flying back-and-forth almost every week. I did a lot of reading on the airplane.

SELYUKH: And what he reads on this flight is an article about a court decision that, in a way, ends up changing his life and, to this day, continues to change ours. Here's what happened.

COX: A person - an individual anonymously posted on one of the bulletin boards some disparaging things about an investment bank.

SELYUKH: A post on a bulletin board. Remember, it's the 1990s. The Internet is a new thing, and many people hang out on bulletin boards. And so on one of them, someone posts about an investment bank, accusing it of fraud. You might actually know about this bank from a movie, "The Wolf Of Wall Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Was all this legal? Absolutely not.

SELYUKH: But it's years before the movie, and the bankers claim the accusations are libel. They plan a lawsuit, except it's the internet. The posts are anonymous. So the investment firm, instead, sues Prodigy, the online service that hosted the bulletin board. And Prodigy argues, we're not the publisher. We're just a platform, like a library that's not liable for what's inside its books. But the court doesn't buy it for an unexpected reason. Prodigy moderated posts, like cleaning up bad language - and because of that, Prodigy gets treated like a newspaper that is liable for its articles or, in this case, for a post by one of its users. And this is what Cox is reading on his way to Washington.

COX: It struck me that this was exactly the wrong result because of the powerful incentive that it created - to be completely hands off on the Internet so that the rule would be anything goes.

SELYUKH: He's thinking, this is crazy. How is this amazing new thing - the Internet - going to blossom if the companies will be punished for trying to keep things clean? So Cox takes matters into his own hands. Back in Congress, he reaches out to his friend across the aisle, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who wanted to encourage the growth of the Internet.

RON WYDEN: I thought early on, I can't believe anybody's going to invest in something if they think they're going to be held personally liable for something posted on your site.

SELYUKH: Cox and Wyden write a law, and Section 230 is born. It becomes known as the building block of the freewheeling Internet we know today by giving websites broad immunity. It says online platforms cannot be sued for something posted by a user, and that remains true even if they act a little like publishers by moderating posts on the platform. Here's Emma Llanso, free expression advocate at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

EMMA LLANSO: Section 230 is as important as the First Amendment to protecting free speech online - certainly here in the U.S.

SELYUKH: The argument goes, without Section 230, we'd never have platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit - sites that allow ordinary people to post their opinions or write reviews. But Section 230 is also tied to some of the worst stuff on the Internet - protecting sites when they host revenge porn, extremely gruesome videos, violent death threats. These days, it even connects to the outcry over Russia's role in the election. Section 230 sits at the heart of a major question about the Internet today - which is, how much responsibility should fall to online platforms for how their users act and get treated? Cox says the intent was straightforward.

COX: The original purpose of this law was to help clean up the Internet - not to facilitate people doing bad things on the Internet.

SELYUKH: But that purpose has not always prevailed. And one specific case of that has prompted Congress to amend Section 230 - the first major change to the law in years. It's the case of a website called backpage.com, which is where the story gets dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I AM JANE DOE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You don't know whether she's alive or dead. You don't know what's happened to her.

SELYUKH: This woman is talking about her 15-year-old daughter who goes missing in Seattle - doesn't show up for her track practice. It's from a documentary, "I Am Jane Doe." The girl is found months later in explicit sex ads on the website Backpage. It's ostensibly classifieds. You can buy a TV or, if you know the code words, find a child forced to be a prostitute. Here's film director Mary Mazzio.

MARY MAZZIO: All of those terms were indicative of an underage child - Lolita, fresh, new to town.

SELYUKH: For years, Backpage has been known as the place to find trafficked children. The victims and their families brought case after case against Backpage and lost. The website, backed by major free-speech groups, kept convincing judges across the country that Section 230 shielded it from liability.

MAZZIO: How is it possibly legal that a website that makes millions and millions of dollars has no accountability for this crime? Section 230 has turned into a Teflon shield not to protect free speech but to protect business revenue.

SELYUKH: Eventually, evidence showed Backpage actively involved in the sex ads. That means the site is a publisher. It is liable. Cox says Section 230 has been mishandled by the judges. So many rulings are citing other rulings instead of the actual statute. But Backpage has become a catalyst, galvanizing federal lawmakers around legislation to change Section 230. And for the first time after years of staunch defiance, the tech giants came out in support of amending the law, at least for sex trafficking. The group representing Facebook, Google and Twitter says they negotiated acceptable changes to help victims get justice, but Senator Wyden points out the timing. These are the very same platforms under scrutiny for being manipulated by Russian operatives.

WYDEN: The big companies have a lot of egg on their face over the election, and nobody wants to be seen as being soft on sex trafficking.

SELYUKH: The House has now passed a well to make websites more liable for online sex trafficking of children. The majority of the Senate supports it, too. Wyden and Cox both have big problems with the legislation, but Wyden says it should be a wake-up call for Silicon Valley.

WYDEN: If the technology companies do not wake up to their responsibilities and use the power 230 gives them to better protect the public against sex trafficking and countries that try to hack our political system...

SELYUKH: If that doesn't happen, he says the sex trafficking bills won't be the only way Congress goes after the Internet giants. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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