On June 17, the United States Department of Justice issued new recommendations to roll back decades-old protections for online platforms publishing third-party content.

Section 230 and internet censorship

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act became law in 1996, as the public was only just coming to welcome the internet into their day-to-day lives. The controversial law freed platforms from legal liability for content from third-parties.

The DoJ’s recommendations include ending immunity for content involving child abuse, terrorism and cyberstalking. It also argues that Section 230:

“Does not apply in a specific case where a platform had actual knowledge or notice that the third party content at issue violated federal criminal law.”

Moreover, the new suggestions would make online platforms liable in civil, not criminal court, for a broader category of illicit and harmful content. Civil court does not risk jail time, but allows monetary punishments that can stamp out businesses operating platforms.

Follow-up to Trump’s attack in May

Platforms that depend on Section 230 include Facebook and Twitter. At the end of May, President Trump sent out an executive order that many saw as a retaliation against Twitter in particular for what his office termed censorship by these platforms. The order says:

“Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.”

Within days of that order, the Center for Democracy and Technology filed suit against Trump, calling the new order a violation of the First Amendment. A representative for the center explained the role of Section 230 in protecting online services to a degree that, for example, newspapers do not enjoy:

“Online services, even very small ones, deal with an unwieldy volume of user-generated content that they cannot possibly review before publishing. Section 230 is designed to give them the legal certainty they need to be able to moderate content that comes to their attention, without risking liability for all content on their platform.”

Bullish for decentralized platforms?

Contrary to popular belief, decentralized platforms also depend on Section 230’s protections. David Greene, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), explained to Cointelegraph:

“Everyone who's intermediary benefits from Section 230, both in your ability to decide that you're going to moderate because Section 30 protects moderation decisions as well as those who decide they're not going to because Section 230 protects liability. It's based on when you don't do anything to the contents at all. So I think it would be very short-sighted for anybody to think that this particular threat to Section 230 is really, truly only attacking the moderation side.”

In March, the EFF flagged a bill that likewise seemed to be a direct attack on Facebook for perceived bias.