This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 2/26/18.
These days a lot of people are upset with Facebook, along with many other of its fellow big Internet companies. Being upset with these companies can make it tempting to try to punish them with regulation that might hurt them. But it does no good to punish them with regulation that will end up hurting everyone – including you.
Yet that’s what the bill Congress is about to vote on will do. SESTA (or sometimes SESTA-FOSTA) would make changes that reduce the effectiveness of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. While a change to this law would certainly hurt the Facebooks of the world, it is not just the Facebooks that should care. You should too, and here’s why.
Section 230 is a federal statute that says that people who use the Internet are responsible for how they use it—but only those people are, and not those who provide the services that make it possible for people to use the Internet in the first place. The reason it’s important to have this law is because so many people – hundreds, thousands, millions, if not billions of people – use these services to say or do so many things on the Internet. Of course, the reality is, sometimes people use these Internet services to say or do dumb, awful, or even criminal things, and naturally we have lots of laws to punish these dumb, awful, or criminal things. But think about what it would mean for Internet service providers if all those laws that punish bad ways people use the Internet could be directed at them. Even for big companies like Facebook it would be impossibly expensive to have to defend themselves every time someone used their services in these unfortunate ways. Section 230 means that they don’t have to, and that they can remain focused on providing Internet services for all the hundreds, thousands, millions, if not billions of people – including people like you – who use their services in good ways.
If, however, Section 230 stops effectively protecting these service providers, then they will have to start limiting how people can use their services because it will be too expensive to risk letting anyone use their services in potentially wrongful ways. And because it’s not possible for Internet service providers to correctly and accurately filter the sheer volume of content they intermediate, they will end up having to limit too much good content in order to make sure they don’t end up in trouble for having limited too little of the bad.
This inevitable censorship should matter to you even if you are not a Facebook user, because it won’t just be Facebook that will be forced to censor how you use the Internet. Ever bought or sold something on line? Rented an apartment? Posted or watched a video? Found anything useful through a search engine? Your ability to speak, learn, buy, sell, complain, organize, or do anything else online depends on Internet services being able to depend on Section 230 to let you. It isn’t just the big commercial services like Facebook who need Section 230, but Internet service providers of all sorts of shapes and sizes, including broadband ISPs, email providers, online marketplaces, consumer review sites, fan forums, online publications that host user comments… Section 230 even enables non-commercial sites like Wikipedia. As a giant collection of information other people have provided, if Section 230’s protection evaporates, then so will Wikipedia’s ability to provide this valuable resource.
Diminishing Section 230’s protection also not only affects your ability to use existing Internet services, but new ones too. There’s a reason so many Internet companies are based in the United States, where Section 230 has made it safe for start-ups to develop innovative services without fear of crippling liability, and then grow into successful businesses employing thousands. Particularly if you dislike Facebook you should fear a future without Section 230: big companies can afford to take some lumps, but without Section 230’s protection good luck ever getting a new service that’s any better.
And that’s not all: weakening Section 230 not only hurts you by hurting Internet service providers; it also hurts you directly. Think about emails you forward. Comment threads you allow on Facebook posts. Tweets you retweet. These are all activities Section 230 can protect. After all, you’re not the person who wrote the original emails, comments, or tweets, so why should you get in trouble if the original author said or did something dumb, awful, or even criminal in those emails, comments, or tweets? Section 230 makes many of the ordinary ways you use the Internet possible, but without it all bets are off.