Revisiting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act: Using Legislative History to Understand and Evaluate the Evolution of Social Networks
Posted: 9 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 7, 2018
An important dimension of historical approaches to communications networks is the history of policies that have affected their evolution. This has become increasingly clear in recent months, as widespread public concerns about the spread of propaganda and “fake news” over social media and search engines, have resulted in increased attention to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Today, policymakers are beginning to consider whether Section 230, known as the “limited liability” provision of the Communications Decency Act, needs to be revised. This provision carved out immunity for “interactive computer services” (commonly referred to as platforms) for any obscene or problematic content posted by users. The act also gave unlimited power to platforms to police this content on their own – the “Good Samaritan” provision – regardless of whether the content was constitutionally protected.
In light of recent developments and debates, it is necessary to revisit the claims made by Congress and advocates in the run-up to the ratification of the Telecommunications Act, and Section 230. Toward this end, we will be using critical discourse analysis to review the legislative and committee hearings that took place between 1991 and 1996, when the Act was ratified, to examine the arguments that were being put forth in favor of Internet exceptionalism. This work will put these arguments into context with the current reality, in which platforms are behaving more like media companies, and a handful of digital media companies increasingly control the world’s information flows. Our analysis will assess whether these realities were understood by those arguing for Section 230 in the early 1990s; and whether the operation of contemporary social media platforms reflects the intentions and objectives originally embedded in this legislation.
Keywords: platform governance, section 230, communications policy, communications history
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