The safe harbor provisions laid out in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) has allowed modern internet culture to flourish. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act states the following: “No provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Safe harbor means that even if someone posts something illegal on a 3rd-party website (for example, an image they don’t own the license to), neither the 3rd-party who owns the platform or the web host are legally liable for that user’s actions.
Without safe harbor, websites and internet apps would have to heavily and pre-emptively censor their platforms out of legal fear. But the very existence of the legal protections for 3rd-party apps and platforms are under attack in the latest Capitol Hill hearings focusing on social media companies’ responsibility to censor content. At question is whether social media platforms controlled by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are responsible for what users post to their platform. In particular, Meta’s apps (Facebook / Instagram) and their adverse affect on teenagers’ mental health has drawn anger towards the company. Legislators want Meta to police their platforms more and reason that revoking or significantly weakening safe harbor laws will pressure them to do so.
As Congress looks to amend or repeal Section 230, let’s consider who would win and lose in such a scenario.
An Unlikely Ally to Repeal Section 230: Newspapers & Magazines
Editorial after editorial decries Section 230 as giving a “sweetheart” deal to tech players that benefit them at the expense of traditional media companies and publishers. The response to that is simple: for those that hate the modern internet and how random voices are able to speak up and be heard, then these dinosaur publishers would love to go back to the old days where everyone gets their news from the morning paper. This is such a backwards-looking, nightmarish level of centralization that likely only appeals to the most deeply conservative regions distrustful of technology. Traditional media wants to dismantle Section 230 as a last gasp effort to save their outdated business model.
A Likely Scenario: Safe Harbor Will Be Altered to Favor Big Tech
Big tech will likely cut a deal with Congress where they censor their platforms in exchange for legal clarity and a structure of legal penalties that uniquely benefits big tech. The appetite for legislation can be heard in Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments:
Ordinarily, businesses have a common law duty to take reasonable steps to not cause harm to their customers, as well as to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to their customers. That duty also creates an affirmative obligation in certain circumstances for a business to prevent one party using the business’s services from harming another party.
Whatever deal gets cut, small businesses will not have the same resources to “police” their sites at the same level of that Google can, especially given that Google’s AI is already highly trained to moderate content at a low marginal cost to them.
When users post content to a 3rd-party platform like Facebook, it’s somewhat of a charade that they still “own” their own content. Facebook effectively monetizes user generated content. And whatever moderation the government demands will be carried out willingly so that tech giants like Facebook can maintain their preeminently profitable position on the internet and beyond.
Web3: The Solution to Centralization and Censorship
The internet should be a platform offering a diversity of discussion as well as evolving opportunities for cultural development and expression. The obvious answer to increasing censorship and centralization by big tech is decentralization, and fortunately Web3 has charted a path out of their increasingly bankrupt web 2.0 business model. Our solution, the TEA Project, offers the ability for decentralized apps called TApps to run on decentralized IPFS nodes outside the centralized architecture of cloud computing. Unlike traditional blockchain dApps like those that run on Ethereum, TApps are able to run at full speed. If you’re interested in hosting a node on the TEA network or learning more, visit us at Teaproject.org.