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Strengthening the Internet 8 March 2023

We Testified Because the Internet Needs a Voice

By Joseph Lorenzo HallDistinguished Technologist, Strong Internet

Internet Society CEO and President, Andrew Sullivan, testified in front of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law in support of Section 230. During the “Platform Accountability: Gonzalez and Reform” hearing, Andrew explained why the protections that Section 230 gives people and service providers are critical. These protections maintain an open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet, and they support everyone who relies on this global resource for good. His most important message to the Subcommittee is that curtailing Section 230’s protections would directly threaten the ability of individuals to speak, debate, innovate, and be creative online. The ability of ordinary people to fully participate online is what makes the Internet unique and extraordinarily beneficial around the world.

The debate around Section 230 in the United States shares a common feature with other battles over the Internet. When trying to curb harm online, it can be tempting to make what seem like straightforward changes to laws that impact how the Internet works, without fully understanding their potential implications to people in the real world. While the Internet, like other forms of communications media, can carry and amplify social problems, it is also brings people together to accomplish pro-social good we could have never imagined. Changes to the rules about the Internet’s operation must be done with enormous care.

Advocating for the Internet Means Advocating for You

In the hearing, one topic discussed was a recent case heard by the Supreme Court, Gonzalez vs. Google. (The Internet Society filed an amicus curiae brief in this case). To the general observer, this case advances a theory that could be appealing: the people who make videos promoting terrorism are bad, therefore the platforms that hosts those videos is bad. 

But removing the protections that keep a video platform from being held liable would undermine the ability of that platform—and other intermediaries, too, like the Internet service provider that was used to upload the video—to host or carry any users’ content.

Those who would repeal or substantially modify Section 230 want to do so in many cases to hold large platforms accountable. However, making changes to the law with the intention of only targeting these powerful actors could easily harm the Internet for everyone.

As Andrew Sullivan stated in his testimony, “Even something narrowly aimed at the largest corporate players presents a risk to the Internet…But if some players have special rules, it is important everyone else not be subject to those rules by accident, because those others don’t have the financial resources of the special players. It would be bad to create a rule that only the richest companies could afford to meet. It would give them a permanent advantage over potential new competitors.”

Changing Section 230 to remove platform liability protection—while keeping only mega-corporations in mind—doesn’t acknowledge serious risks to the broader ecosystem.

What’s at Risk?

Inept attempts to roll back intermediary protections like Section 230 would have grave consequences for the things we enjoy and have become dependent on. Here some things that would likely cease or be severely restricted:

  • Engaging in online discourse
  • Forwarding restaurant reviews, or reviews of any kind, and reading unbiased reviews
  • Re-sharing news articles on favorite social platforms
  • Debating a diversity of opinions over blogs, message boards, online forums, and social platforms
  • Connecting with support groups, and even telehealth, to receive remote health care
  • Growing small businesses through online marketing and sales
  • Starting a community network to bring fast, affordable, and reliable Internet to those who don’t have it

If Section 230 is repealed or altered, the fear of liability could drastically affect how Americans—and everyone who uses services based in the U.S.—are able to use the Internet. Seeking to limit their potential liability, many platforms will limit what people can post online.

The Internet Needs You to Be Its Advocate

Depending on where you live, the threats to the Internet may look different. Whether you live in a country where the Internet has become ingrained in every day life or in an area of the world where Internet access is hard to come by, the Internet needs advocates to stand up for the good it brings to the world.

What can you do?

Learn more about Section 230 and the benefits it enables, talk to your local government about the importance the Internet has in your life, and ask that they do an Internet Impact assessment before they propose laws that could harm the Internet we know today.

Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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