In the age of coronavirus, the internet has become our main channel to the outside world. We use it to see family and friends, to work from home, to buy groceries and household products, to educate our kids, to practice our religion, to entertain ourselves, and even to chat safely with our doctors.
It helps keep us safe, sane, and in the loop.
The tool that makes this possible is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a relatively simple federal law that says you’re responsible for what you post on online, not the online platform.
As we’ve previously discussed, this is the same liability principle that protects the Washington Post from being held responsible for fraudulent listings in its classified section. And many other federal laws enshrine the same principle too (e.g., the Volunteer Protection Act, the Biomaterials Access Assurance Act).
While it makes sense that speakers should be held responsible for the statements and not the platform on which they post, Section 230 enshrined this concept into law to make it very clear. Section 230 has made possible amazing services that we’ve all used during this crisis.
Indeed, this liability principle is what lets everyday Americans, like you and me, use the internet for good.
Without Section 230’s clear limitation on liability it’s hard to imagine that most of our online services would — or even could — exist. Without Section 230, Snapchat could be responsible & held legally liable for every mean message. Match.com could be responsible for every over-inflated listing. Doordash could be required to inspect every item on a restaurant’s menu for accuracy. Without Section 230, none of these services — nor any other small business that hosts user-created content — could operate with so much potential liability.
Fortunately, we have Section 230 and with it, all the innovative platforms it made possible. Consider just a few examples of how Section 230 has helped us during this pandemic:
- NextDoor, Twitter, Facebook, etc. all help us stay connected with our neighbors. In my own home we’ve used NextDoor to help make sure that older neighbors have the food and care they need.
- Video conferencing services like FaceTime, WhatsApp, Duo, and Zoom help us check in on our friends and family members, help us know that they are okay, continue sharing our lives with them, enable online business to continue, and remote learning.
- Online tools like YouTube and Khan Academy help us teach each other new skills, languages, how to stay safe when we go outside, and even how to build our own masks.
- Services like Zoom and Google Hangouts helps teachers and students keep eduction continuing without a physical classroom.
Getting necessary food and supplies
- Through services like eBay and Etsy, sellers and buyers can easily connect, helping us find things we need while enabling the seller to earn valuable income.
- Platforms like Amazon and Jet.com help customers find third-party sellers with needed products.
- Doordash, Instacart, and UberEats help bring us our meals and groceries.
Supporting struggling small businesses and workers
- Online fundraising campaigns like GoFundMe are being used to raise funds for those who’ve lost jobs and businesses forced to close.
Without Section 230, many if not all these services might not exist. For many of us cooped up inside, without these tools, we would find ourselves disconnected, uninformed, and underserved.