For years, Section 230 was thought of as an internet bill. Originally passed in 1996, it was a way to guard against the purposeful spread of unsavory content on the internet. But the bill could never have contemplated the rise of social media platforms at a time when the most exciting thing you could do with your cell phone was a game of snake. But now, Section 230 is at the heart of a political and economic tornado that’s swept up freedom of speech, accountability, data security, political bias, and even sex-trafficking. Yet, the truth about Section 230 is that it has much to do with maintaining political influence and the exploitation of personal data than it does with your personal rights.

Section 230 has come storming back into the news cycle with President Trump vowing to veto the defense bill if it does not include language that would roll Section 230 back or repeal it altogether. 

Section 230 is designed to protect internet companies from being liable for any falsities, filth, or illegal content posted on their platforms. It also protects them from being sued for moderating that content. In other words, private tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have the legal right to censor posts they deem to be in violation of their standards.

This is legally viable because of two reasons: 

First, these companies are deemed to be distributors of content, not publishers. This small distinction holds a lot of power. By law, a publisher can be held liable for anything they publish. This is why libel, slander, and defamation suits exist. If an individual or company feels they have been misrepresented by a publisher, and that misrepresentation adversely affects them or their business, they can sue. But a distributor of content cannot be held to the same standards. Thus, the argument is that Twitter et al. are not responsible for their content and therefore cannot be held legally liable for it. 

Second, the tech giants are also private companies. As private companies, they have the right to enforce their own standards on their platforms. Therefore, they are well within their rights to remove — or moderate — content that is in violation of those standards. Under Section 230, distributors cannot be sued for infringing on the freedom of speech of censored content creators. 

Section 230 was essentially designed to counter what experts call a perverse incentive. In other words, prior to Section 230, it was less risky for a website to let anything get posted, because once you moderate content, you are making editorial decisions and are therefore a publisher and open to free speech litigation. Section 230 was an attempt to — if you’ll permit me — un-disincentivize sites from moderating filthy, false, or illegal content like hate speech. 

Several years ago, Section 230 got some carveouts. And by all estimations, they were needed. In 2018, a pair of bills called FOSTA-SESTA (the House bill was FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were signed into law by President Trump. The bills made it so publishers and distributors would be responsible if third parties were found to be posting ads for prostitution — including consensual sex work — on their platforms.