Opinions

Keeping Our Speech Free: Why We Need Section 230

By: Alexandra Li

Photo courtesy of NPR.org

Over the past few months, the Supreme Court’s unprecedented conservative rulings have generated heated discussions. Social media has been a vital breeding ground for this discourse; both liberals and conservatives have relied on social media to exercise their first amendment rights. On NextDoor, members of our community have spread the word for protests in support of Roe v. Wade. As a teenager, it was social media—Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok—where I could engage in heated, but important discussions about these rulings with people who might not necessarily share the same beliefs as myself. Social media allows us to have these discussions in an environment with all ages and demographics, with 84% of 18-29 and 73% of 50-64 year olds using social media (“Social Media”). It is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which “shields websites from being held legally responsible for content that others post,” that protects platforms’ ability to host free, uncensored speech (Jurecic). Revoking it, as President Biden has suggested, would transform social media as we know it from a place of free and open discourse to one not only restrictive of free speech, but one where consumers have even less options and are even further subject to the invasive privacy policies of social media platforms (Gerstein). 

60% of Americans believe that major technology companies divide, rather than unite, society (“Techlash?”). But why is social media divisive? As curious animals, we are more likely to click on the appalling and galvanizing than the moderate. As social animals, we like seeing our beliefs validated, not challenged. Social media platforms harness these qualities by combining invasive data collection policies with powerful algorithms to give us information that we like and are most likely to click on, thereby cementing our opinions and failing to challenge our them. That’s why the news we get on our feeds is in support, not dissent of our opinions, pushing us further into our respective political camps rather than bringing us together. Unfortunately, due to the absence of competition in the world of social media, we simply don’t have options when it comes to privacy policies or how our data is used and collected. It is doubtless that today’s social media needs reform—the way our platforms operate is designed to separate, not bring us together. But repealing social media companies’ immunity from liability for what is posted on their platforms is not the answer. 

Pre-Section 230, the legal landscape of online moderation was constantly challenged by the new dimensions each case presented. Conflicting rulings in Cubby v. CompuServe and Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy gave rise to what professor Eric Goldman calls the “moderator’s dilemma”—should moderators play it safe and moderate as much as possible, or can they hide behind a shield of ignorance of what their users post (Jurecic)? Many social media platforms, fearing the cost of litigation, might have chosen the former, creating barriers to speech that limit our first amendment rights. Section 230, while not perfect, streamlines moderation and protects free speech by ensuring we at least have a chance to have our voices heard. By repealing Section 230, controversial but important opinions will be censored out. 

Startups are vital to healthy online discourse. Their presence forces companies to compete to offer users the best policies and the most transparency. Today, in their unchallenged spheres of influence, big tech giants leverage their massive market shares to give us no option but to comply with their invasive data-collection practices. But in a world without Section 230, even fewer startups, crushed by the cost of litigation that a lack of immunity will bring, will have the chance to offer alternatives to Meta’s, Google’s, and TikTok data collection policies. Repealing Section 230, therefore, would increase, not decrease polarization—with even fewer options, us consumers will have less say as to how our data is used. What we need instead is stronger enforcement of our competition laws to break up monopolies and, since the digital world has undoubtedly changed since the passing of Section 230, specific and targeted reformations to the Communications Decency Act.

Some of you might remember the earlier days of social media, with the coming and going of new online platforms. Platforms like MySpace, Kick, Vine, and a variety of other sites came and went, competing to offer us the best, most secure, and most innovative platforms. The early years of the digital age show that our online discourse doesn’t have to be dominated by a handful of giants to be a productive and healthy space, where us consumers, not the corporation, control how our information is used. We need to advocate for change—not by repealing, but by recognizing that Section 230 is vital to expanding our first amendment rights by giving us not just a voice, but options, to speak our minds.

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