Our Online Speech Rights Are Under Threat

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Congress on Wednesday will examine a little-known law that has made the internet the space for self-expression and connection that it is today. The law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), is one of the most speech protective laws Congress has ever enacted and it is now under threat.

The internet today provides us an indispensable platform to communicate freely with others who might otherwise be beyond reach. One person with an idea or a desire to create change can reach millions. April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 and spawned an online movement drawing attention to the lack of representation of people of color in the nominated films.


Like Reign, people around the world are leveraging the internet to fight back against anything from systemic racism to the tactics of oppressive regimes. And the benefits can be personal too — new parents needing advice on a stroller can turn to online parent message boards, home gardeners seeking lawn care tips can turn to DIY gardening blogs, and more.

is possible because so many online forums enable speakers to communicate freely
on their platforms. Wikipedia provides a free online encyclopedia in scores of
languages, thanks to volunteers around the world. Yelp lets us give recommendations
on anything from restaurants to nail salons. Consumer watchdog sites encourage the public to submit reports of corporate
malfeasance. Environmental activists at sites like Frack Check
 ask citizens to submit horror stories
about fracking in their communities. The Bed Bug
 asks users to report bed bug
infestations. And then, of course, there are Facebook and Twitter.

230 makes communication on these platforms possible
by assuring online platforms that they generally won’t be liable for user-generated
content. Yelp can’t be held legally responsible every time one of its users posts
a potentially false negative review. The Bed Bug Registry doesn’t have to visit
every hotel with a magnifying glass to confirm the public reports. And Facebook
can offer a forum for billions of users to share their thoughts, pictures,
memes, and videos freely without having to approve every post before it goes up.

If it weren’t for CDA 230, no website owner would
permit public posts knowing that the site could be investigated, shut down, sued,
or charged with a felony over one user’s speech. Avoiding legal risk would
require even the smallest blog to hire an army of lawyers to assess in
real-time all content created and uploaded by users. It’s unaffordable.
Instead, sites would avoid legal liability by simply refusing to host
user-generated content at all. 

Of course, users make mistakes. We get facts wrong. We can be terrible to one another in ways that break the law, offend, or hurt. Bad actors can — and do — abuse the internet for nefarious and destructive purposes. But there are already safeguards in place to address harmful content not protected under the First Amendment, and Section 230 does not shield bad actors or lawbreakers. If you use Facebook to harass someone (please, don’t do that), you remain responsible for those actions.

CDA 230 also doesn’t stop online platforms from trying to cultivate
orderly, pleasant, and useful sites. While the biggest social media companies,
responsible for hosting the speech of billions, should resist calls to censor
lawful speech, CDA 230 allows sites to delete abusive accounts, remove content
that violates the site’s terms of service, or refuse to carry pornography without
risking liability for the speech that they do host.

Despite these safeguards, the obvious good CDA 230 has done
in creating a free, vibrant forum for speech in the modern era, and the clear
harm that would result for the speech of billions should it no longer exist, some
lawmakers are considering rolling the law’s protections back in ways that are
poorly informed and even dangerous. One lawmaker has
a bill that would require a federal agency to decide whether
a platform complies with a “political neutrality” requirement as a precondition
for immunity. Others have
revoking platforms’ immunity when moderating “objectionable”
content while retaining immunity for moderating “unlawful content” in good

Setting aside the obvious constitutional problems with a
government entity judging the political content of speech, or dictating the
censorship decisions of online platforms, these proposals would make it far
less palatable for online services to host others’ speech at all. If enacted,
the internet’s marketplace of ideas — and our freedom to communicate online — would

The ACLU has continued to fight for Section 230 to protect people’s
ability to create and communicate online. We have encouraged courts to
interpret the law’s immunity provisions to enable as much free expression
online as possible under U.S. law. We will remain vigilant in ensuring that the
internet remains a place for self-expression and creation for all. We urge
Members of Congress as they examine CDA 230’s role in the free expression to do
the same.

This content was originally published here.

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