­Why It Matters: Section 230 and the U.S. Supreme Court

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (Shoshana Gordon/ProPublica), and the Supreme Court of the U.S. (Philosophicalswag/Wikimedia Commons).

By Mike B., Red Phoenix correspondent, Ohio.

As the United States Supreme Court contemplates a ruling in the case of Gonzalez v. Google, both pundits and politicians still struggle to predict how a ruling could lead to new restrictions on online communication. At issue is the current interpretation of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230). This provision, commonly referred to as Section 230, has protected big tech for decades. It shields companies from liability related to user-generated content on the platforms and servers which comprise the Internet as we know it, including message boards, blogs, and social media.

A liability is ostensibly created when user-generated content may be considered harmful, as in content that may cause financial damages or incite violence or illegal activity. In simple terms, an individual or group posting potentially harmful content to a platform like Facebook or Twitter, is currently the sole party liable for damages and penalties. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are not liable for hosting – or even promoting – the content at present. The Gonzalez case effectively seeks to upend this arrangement.

Tech giants like Google and Meta are hardly sympathetic entities by any stretch of the imagination. But a significant change to Section 230 will likely impose direct and indirect consequences upon most people who rely upon Internet communication and platforms for interaction and employment. Perhaps most critically, a ruling in favor of Gonzalez will almost certainly have a “chilling effect” that motivates tech companies to severely curtail and regulate online content. That includes dissenting opinions, advocacy, and activism that run contrary to profit-oriented motivations and/or pro-government sentiments. Under increased threat of financial liability, it is further conceivable that tech companies may be more likely to provide the private and personal data of its users to government entities for undue scrutiny and investigation.

It’s important to note that “prominent” Trumpite legislators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz both support changes to Section 230. Hawley has gone so far as to file an amicus brief in the Gonzalez case that seeks to influence the Court’s ruling. In the brief he asserts that the use of proprietary algorithms by online platforms and the indifference of big tech to the rampant presence of illegal content online, indicates that the Internet has evolved well beyond the framework of Section 230. Moreover, Hawley hints that further cases in the vein of Gonzalez will surely follow should the Court fail to act in the present matter.

Of course both American tech companies and the U.S. government have sided with the far-right time and again over the course of recent decades, promoting and amplifying the rise of neo-fascism in America. Moreover, multi-billionaire Elon Musk has now acquired Twitter, one of the most popular and influential social media platforms in the world. As such, it is evident that even without the tipping point of a case like Gonzalez v. Google (or Twitter, Inc. v. Taameh, a similar pending matter before the Supreme Court of the Ninth Circuit), corporate interests have already cast their lot with the far right, typically justifying their entanglements as a defense of so-called “free speech.”

Irrespective of how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Gonzalez v. Google, one thing is for certain: changes are likely on the way with how most of humanity communicates, informs, and organizes via the Internet. Moreover, these changes will be crafted and implemented by groups and individuals whose primary objectives are to maintain their concentrations of wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.

In previous eras of great upheaval and broad social change, everyday people found it necessary to circumvent constraints on media and develop new methods of communication and interaction to organize and advance meaningful social change. Given the extraordinary developments of the present day, it is important to be prepared for new challenges and to adapt and survive accordingly, and that’s precisely why this matters.

Categories: Editorials, Government, U.S. News

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