In 1996, Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act was passed to provide a legal shield to online platforms with user-generated content. It states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be deemed to be the publisher or speaker of information provided by another information content provider.”
Speaking Thursday at the University of Virginia Rotunda, former U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock called the rule “the 26 words that changed the internet.”
Comstock was joined by U.S. Senator Mark Warner as panelists for “Social Media vs. Democracy,” a Democracy Dialogues series event produced by UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and co-sponsored by the Miller Center of Public Affairs of the UVA. UVA law professor Danielle Citron, one of the foremost experts on digital privacy, and media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” were moderators. the event. AVU President Jim Ryan gave the keynote address.
The debate over the power of Section 230 – something that has played out publicly in recent years and has only intensified since the 2020 presidential election – served as a starting point for the discussion between Comstock , a Republican, and Warner, a Democrat.
In February 2021, Warner was among a group of Democratic senators who introduced the Fraud, Exploitation, Threat, Extremism and Consumer Harm Protection Act. Better known as the SAFE TECH Act, this legislation sought to reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling behaviors such as cyberstalking, targeted harassment and discrimination on their platforms.
“The basic idea is if I’m doing something that would be illegal in the real world, in terms of discrimination or harassment, or if I’m a TV or radio station and I’m putting up misleading advertising that leads to a scam,” Warner said on Thursday, “all of these things are illegal in the tangible world. I think you should be able to sue for these cases in the virtual world, on the platforms.
“It does not guarantee that you will be successful, but it will indicate that there should be a remedy.”
Warner then referred to Herrick v. Grindr, a civil lawsuit filed by Matthew Herrick against the online dating app after someone impersonated Herrick’s profile, resulting in abuse and harassment. A US federal appeals court, however, declined to hold Grindr liable.
Herrick “couldn’t even get an injunction for what would clearly be harassment in any other context,” Warner said.
“I think the First Amendment clearly means you can say stupid things. That doesn’t mean it will then be broadcast to 6 billion people. The line I’ve been trying to draw is if it’s illegal in the tangible world, you should at least be able to sue in the virtual world, in the event of a report under Section 230.”
Comstock went to the roots of Section 230 to deliver a point on its ongoing effectiveness. She pointed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s use of Facebook and Twitter to spread messages during the war with Russia and the unity it produced among Ukrainian allies, including the United States.
“This man is out there on the street saying, ‘I’m staying here,'” Comstock said. “He presents that there are no guards. And that was the basic concept of Section 230 – no guards.
“How many of us have participated in an interview on the network? Most of us can’t do that. Most of us haven’t been on cable. You can submit an editorial or letter to the editor of the newspaper, but he cannot publish it.
“But without guards, you go straight to people. So to look at the good part of that, you see Zelenskyy and what he did. He rallied the American people. On which issue do the American people agree 89% or 90%? … The American people have seen this for themselves and have seen this good without a filter against evil.
Comstock served in Congress during the height of the #MeToo movement and she followed the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Both movements had their origins in social media.
“Everyone has seen the unfiltered [Floyd] video and you couldn’t deny it,” Comstock said. “And I think that had a very powerful positive effect. There were also riots and bad things, but overall it was a good thing that we all heard directly from people. There was power in hearing that unfiltered voice that hadn’t come through the media in many ways. You now see many more diverse voices in mainstream media. And I think a lot of that is because of Black Lives Matter.
While the positive and negative side effects of Section 230 persist, Comstock said it’s important to note that it was co-sponsored 26 years ago by a Republican (Rep. Christopher Cox of California) and a Democrat. (Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon).
“These two very different philosophical perspectives on politics came together and wrote this,” Comstock said.
Perhaps, she says, this can serve as hope for the future.