Reason Podcast

The 26 Words That 'Created the Internet'—and Why They May Be on the Chopping Block

Legal scholar Jeff Kosseff wanted to write a "biography" of Section 230, the law that immunizes websites and ISPs from a lot of legal actions. He fears he has written its obituary.


Psst…do you want to know the 26 words that, in the opinion of today's guest on the Reason Podcast, "created the internet?"

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

That's part of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that was passed in 1996, as part of a larger piece of legislation updating telecommunications regulations. Section 230 grants broad immunity to websites and internet service providers from legal actions such as being sued for libel and defamation. It's the reason why Reason can't be sued for libelous or defamatory content posted in our comments section (though the authors of such comments can be).

Section 230 is the law that has enabled the internet to become driven by user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Yelp reviews to basically all of Twitter. You get rid of Section 230 and all that—and much more—is toast. In its first decade, Section 230 was mostly celebrated for allowing free expression and new economic models, but these days it is under attack from conservative Republicans such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and from liberal Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have expressed interest in ripping up Section 230 and regulating social media.

Today's guest Jeff Kosseff is sweating bullets over all this. A former journalist who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he teaches law and cybersecurity at the United States Naval Academy and is the author of the urgent new book, The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet. In a wide-ranging conversation, Kosseff tells Nick Gillespie about the unlikely partnership between a conservative Republican (former Rep. Chris Cox of California) and a liberal Democrat (future Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon) in the mid-1990s that gave rise to Section 230; why today's internet is "unimaginable" without it; how the European Union's approach to online speech is incompatible with America's; and why we might be witnessing the death not just of Section 230 but of the free speech ethos of the internet and World Wide Web. Kosseff tells Gillespie that he started out writing "a biography" of Section 230 but is now worried that he in fact has written "an obituary" for it.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Links related to today's podcast:

The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet, by Jeff Kosseff

Jeff Kosseff's faculty page at the United States Naval Academy

"Nancy Pelosi Declares a 'New Era' of Internet Regulation; E.U. Threatens Same," by Nick Gillespie

"Mark Zuckerberg Calls for Government Regulation of Political Speech on Facebook," by Nick Gillespie

"Sen. Josh Hawley Rails Against 'Big Tech,' Anti-Conservative Bias, and Section 230," by Robby Soave

"4 Cases That Show the Scope of Services, Speech, and Conduct Protected by Section 230," by Elizabeth Nolan Brown