It’s Well Past 230 For The US Communications Decency Act

One of the more amazing aspects of growing older in Washington DC is watching ancient political events or hastily written laws of another time take on a whole other meaning than they were originally intended.  

Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act is one of those items.  An ancient political sop, in an ancient Presidential campaign year coming into the third decade of the 21st century - now like a Commandment to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  

The original purpose of Section 230 was to provide a cover to a nascent industry called the Internet. In toto is says “"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In other words, people could publish and the sites containing the information could not be sued for content. 

For those of us on the Hill at the time in a presidential political year - and considering what little was on the Internet at the time - it didn’t seem like a big deal.  Protecting some potential political contributors and encouraging industry - who could not like that?

As Time Goes By

Truly no one in 1996 had a clue what the Internet would become – even the Internet.  The explosion of sites and the reach of the system didn’t really take place until the mid/late 00’s and early 10’s.  And no one thought it would be accessed by over sixty percent of the world’s population.  Nor through smart phones - which again did not exist until 2007.  Jobs. Zuckerberg. Bezos. Few knew of them. Less cared.

What did occur to the sharper cognoscente early on was the ability to plant and maneuver information on the Net.

No more newspapers or magazines with editors and source demanding reports.  Straight from the horse’s mouth to the public.  A boon to those with an agenda to push – foreign and domestic.  And a way to tie together moment by moment liked minded peoples in a way not possible before.

And, for the protected Net platform providers desperate to try to monetize their investment, controversy drove “eyes” to target.  More revenue from advertisers. And the Net companies also slowly realized that all the personal information the “eyes” unknowingly and legally gave - at no charge – was a valuable commodity.  Who it got sold to  - well, that was somebody else’s headache.  

Fire In The Theatre

So, we’ve ended up with the mess we have today.  A wealthy beyond belief internet capable of shooting lies around the world at a moment’s notice. And the ability to multiply the lies through bots with an anonymity based on a system that has it built in; the owners paying lip service to public concern with “internal guidelines.” 

US regulators has been reluctant to interfere much with this system. Part of it ignorance of its structure and extent of its reach. And part  balancing act of libertarian cant  - with the true fear of potential political backlash from a system built to instantly attack those who cross it. 

And, after stiff arming DC for some time with hostile and dismissive rhetoric, the Internet’s Capital, Silicon Valley, has realized that any efforts to regulate can be countered with good lobbying and partial measures that work well enough to mollify.  Self-regulation of content is touted at the best solution.  And they are more than happy to support the idea of freedom of speech when it comes to increasing eyes on site – no matter what the speech or what its effect.  Self-regulation works in their world view. Why upset the system?

Well Past 230 - Let‘Em Sue

For an increasing large portion of the political and social system of the United States, the current “system” is not working.  It is a protected, informational sewer clogging up our personal and political processes. 

It is time to look at the main culprit - the existence of a section of a political bill from 26 years ago meant to mollify a potential set of contributors by supporting a nascent industry long overdue for change.

We cannot fix this situation with government regulation.  The last thing we need is our government building another version of the Federal Communication Commission regulating content on the “public airwaves.”  Besides, the internet is no borders and no boundaries.  What are you gonna do - regulate a server in Bucharest used by a blogger in Singapore?

No, I would simply remove Section 230 itself.  Strike the section.  Let the platform providers see what the true market place looks like when they can be sued by one and all for their content.  Other companies are, why not them?  Let the market dictate what will and will not be tolerated.  They’ll be paying more attention to content. Fast.

Some will scream bloody murder about this approach.  And to those who wish to burn down the theatre and have no limits – well, sorry guys.  The Constitution supports free speech – up to point.  As a Supreme Court justice once said, the Constitution is not a suicide pact… “the choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

We are well past 230.  Time for change.


Ronald Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and a visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.


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