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.

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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

 

NEXT: On Volume One of the Mueller Report

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  1. If internet companies got that immunity because they claimed to be content neutral platforms. If they don’t want to be content neutral platforms, and it appears they don’t, then they should assume the responsibility of all of their content as a necessary price of obtaining the freedom to control it

    1. Where did this “content neutral platform” nonsense come from? I keep seeing it repeated all over the place. I should be able to moderate my website however I want. If you don’t like it, go to a different website.

        1. Indeed, this “content neutral” harassment that we keep getting triggered with is complete nonsense. Any Internet service that allows its users to convey inappropriate “parody” through its platform should face the most severe legal consequences, regardless of any “content neutral” baloney. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

          https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

      1. Then you should be treated as a publisher and not a platform.

        Either Twitter, FB, YT etc are platforms and only remove illegal content, or they are publishers and can decide what opinions and viewpoints they want on their site

        1. Why? Who are you to tell people how to run their own websites and products?

          1. Should they still be immune from libel suits?

          2. No one is telling them anything. They can do whatever they like. But they should have to assume the responsibility that comes with that freedom and give up their immunity. You really don’t seem to understand this all

            1. There is no responsibility. This is not some sort of privilege granted in exchange for certain behavior. Section 230 is the common sense notion that you can’t be held liable for other people’s actions codified into law so that there is no ambiguity and so that people could be free to innovate without fear of lawsuits and liability.

              It seems like people’s judgement on this is clouded by their hate of the Big Tech titans. Extend your logic beyond them to the rest of the internet. If I choose to ban trolls from my small web forum then I’m now liable if anyone posts something illegal? Or does some government committee get to decide if I banned the trolls for a valid reason?

              1. Section 230 is the common sense notion that you can’t be held liable for other people’s actions

                I agree with that notion. But, when you pick and choose what you include as material, it’s no longer other people’s actions. You’re now a participant. If you can choose to remove material because it’s conservative, you can equally choose to remove it because it’s libelous or because it violates IP law. And your not doing so means you’re a participant in that libel or IP violation.

                1. You DO Have to remove it for those reasons. But you are given a reasonable opportunity to do so without being sued by everyone under the sun. That is the entire point.

              2. If I choose to ban trolls from my small web forum then I’m now liable if anyone posts something illegal?

                And that’s where “content-neutral” comes in. If you have established standards of behavior on your forum that aren’t “cool if I agree with you, but you’re a troll if I don’t”, then you’re not part of the content generation process.

      2. Where did this “content neutral platform” nonsense come from?

        Because, when they opt to curate the material published, they’re part of the content generating process. The curation makes the content, in part, their own. And bear in mind, this exemption is not something provided to the internet’s brick-and-mortar competitors. Maybe it should be. But, right now, Section 230 is, effectively, an internet subsidy.

      3. I keep hearing a lot of crap about “private web sites”. Ok, l’ll grant that the websites themselves are private. However, the internet itself is very much public infrastructure, developed with taxpayer dollars, and if you want use of that public infrastructure, then you’re obligated to conform to the rules. Don’t like it? Fine. You can run your website on your desktop. Or, as libertarians are fond of telling us, go build your own internet.

        1. I’m afraid you have no idea how the internet works

  2. The unholy alliance between liberals and conservatives chomping at the bit to control online content is the worst political trend I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    1. add supposed libertarians to that alliance based on the comments section of every article about this here

  3. should I not be apathetic to this other than to worry (R) and (D) are making plans in the corner? it’s boring

    >>>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.

    seems like someone will just invent something better. nothing really “goes away” anymore … free speech is like light it will always be

    1. At some point in the future there will be no light. It will be very very very far into the future, but it will come.

      1. i’m an optimist.

      2. 12 years according to the expert on global climate warming change.

  4. Speaking of the internets.

    Trump And Twitter’s Jack Dorsey Hold Unannounced Meeting In Oval Office

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-04-23/trump-and-twitters-jack-dorsey-hold-unannounced-meeting-oval-office

    Trump needs more space on the Twitter for his presidential tweets.

  5. I thought the repeal of “Net Neutrality” killed the Internet?

  6. Nonsense. The Internet is as old as I am, and it was already in its late 20s in 1996. What the 26 words did is let media conglomerates start writing the rules for large chunks of the ‘net. Good riddance.

    1. Old media and new media, i.e. tech companies.

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