Section 230

What Is Section 230?

Section 230 is a provision of federal law that protects internet web hosts and users from legal liability for online information provided by third parties. In addition, the law protects web hosts from liability for voluntarily and in good faith editing or restricting access to objectionable material even if the material is constitutionally protected.

Section 230 was enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which amended the Communications Act of 1934, U.S. Congress. The provision was intended to promote the development of the internet and of interactive computer services to expand information and educational resources available to the public. In recent years, the spread of misinformation and disinformation through internet services and denials of access to some individuals and material have raised questions about the scope of Section 230 protections.

Section 230 has been interpreted by courts as creating broad immunity for both the provider and user of an “interactive computer service”  by prohibiting their treatment as the “publisher or speaker” of information provided by another person. Section 230 “preempts,” i.e., displaces or overrides, any laws that would hold such providers or users liable for third-party content. Providers and users are protected against criminal sanctions, civil judgments, and injunctions.

However, both providers and users of interactive internet services are responsible for content that they create and provide online. Section 230 has “exceptions,” i.e., limits: It does not eliminate liability for material prohibited by laws on obscenity or the sexual exploitation of children, or by intellectual property, communications privacy, or prostitution or sex trafficking laws. In addition, interactive internet services must notify customers of parental control protections.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Section 230 protects providers and users of internet services from liability for information provided online by third parties.
  • Web hosts can edit and restrict access to objectionable third-party material even if the material otherwise would be constitutionally protected.
  • Section 230 does not eliminate liability for material prohibited by laws on obscenity, sexual exploitation of children, prostitution, or sex trafficking, or by laws protecting intellectual property and communications privacy.
  • The role of online services in denying access to some content and users and in spreading misinformation and disinformation has raised political issues about the scope of section 230 immunity.


Understanding Section 230

Section 230 applies to an “internet computer service,” an online intermediary content platform or service provider to which the statute grants extensive legal immunity. The term “internet computer service” is defined broadly in the statute and is interpreted expansively by courts. It means any information service, system, or provider of software or tools to allow, disallow, analyze, transmit, or organize content or perform other functions—or that provides or enables access to a computer service by users. Indicating the legislative intent for the law, a provision expressly protects providing access to the internet and to libraries’ and educational institutions’ systems and services.

In addition to giant, online services such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Yelp, section 230 protects the full range of diverse companies that provide internet access and hosting. These companies can establish and apply their own policies on what material they will permit or prohibit on their services. On the other hand, the law treats “information content providers” as legally responsible for the information that they create and post online. The statute defines “information content providers” as persons who post information that they have created or developed on or through internet computer services.

Bipartisan Criticism, Different Issues

Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the breadth of section 230 protections.  However, they do not agree on how to change the law. Republicans focus on censorship and denials of access to political, particularly conservative, actors and views. Democrats’ concerns tend to relate to content promoting violence or facilitating criminal activities.

In the current Congress, pending bills range from a wholesale repeal of section 230  to an amendment to remove immunity for using algorithms or other methods for sorting and presenting information unless the results’ display is obvious, understandable, and transparent, and relates directly to the query. Earlier this year President Biden revoked an order issued by President Trump, his predecessor, for federal agencies to review the law. Although President Biden has criticized Section 230, the timing and content of any proposal by the Biden Administration to revise the law is uncertain.  

What is the purpose of section 230?

Section 230 was enacted to promote the development of the internet by providing broad immunity to web hosts, users, and intermediary service providers for granting online access to information created by third parties and for determining in good faith to edit material and to restrict access to objectionable third-party material, even if the material otherwise would be constitutionally protected.

Are there state or other laws that can override the protections of section 230?

State laws cannot override section 230 protections. The federal statute explicitly states that section 230 preempts state law. However, section 230 does not apply in foreign jurisdictions. Almost all foreign jurisdictions have no similar immunity law for online, third-party material.   

Which types of websites are covered by section 230 immunity?

Websites that post content created by third parties are entitled to section 230 protection. They range from giant platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yelp—to local community sites; sites that rate restaurants, products and services; retailers; and even sites provided by employers for employee discussions.

Article Sources

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  1. Congress.Gov. Pub. L. No. 104-104. "S.652 - Telecommunications Act of 1996." Accessed Oct.26, 2021.

  2. 47 U.S.C. 230(c). “Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  3. Congress.Gov. “S. 2972. A bill to repeal section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934.“ (Sen. Graham, Lindsey). Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  4. Congress. Gov. "H.R. 2154. "Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act.“ (Rep. Malinowski, Tom). Accessed Oct. 26. 2021.

  5. The Hill. “Biden revokes Trump-era order targeting shield for website operators.” Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.