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LibsOfTikTok founder Chaya Raichik sits cozy with Donald Trump at the dinner he invited her to

If a news site falsely calls you a scammer, you can sue the publisher for libel. But if someone posts that on Facebook, you can’t sue the company – only the person who posted it.

This is due to Section 230, which states that “No provider or user of any interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by any other information content provider.”

That legal phrase protects companies that can host trillions of posts from being forgotten by anyone who feels aggrieved by something someone else has posted – whether their complaint is legitimate or not.

Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts that are obscene or violate the services’ own standards, for example, as long as they act in “good faith.”

Where does section 230 come from?

The measure’s history dates back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were held liable for selling books containing “obscenity,” which is not protected by the First Amendment. One case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that holding someone accountable for someone else’s content created a “chilling effect.”

That meant plaintiffs had to prove that bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, said Jeff Kosseff, the author of “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a book about Section 230.

Fast-forward a few decades to when the commercial Internet took off with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offered online forums, but CompuServe chose not to moderate it, while Prodigy, seeking a family-friendly image, did.

CompuServe was sued for that and the case was dismissed. However, Prodigy ran into trouble. The judge in their case ruled that “they exercised editorial control — so you’re more like a newspaper than a newsstand,” Kosseff said.

That didn’t sit well with politicians, who feared the outcome would discourage newly founding internet companies from moderating in the first place. And Section 230 was born.

“Today it protects against liability for user posts as well as liability for any content moderation clams,” Kosseff said.

What happens if Section 230 is restricted or disappears?

“I don’t think any of the social media companies would exist in their current form without Section 230,” Kosseff said. “They’ve built their business models around large user content platforms.”

There are two possible outcomes. Platforms could become more cautious, as Craigslist did after the passage of a sex trafficking law in 2018 that exempted Section 230 from material that “promotes or facilitates prostitution.” Craigslist quickly removed the “personals” section, which was not intended to facilitate sex work. But the company didn’t want to take any chances.

This outcome could actually hurt none other than the president himself, who routinely attacks private figures, harbors conspiracy theories, and accuses others of crimes.

“If platforms weren’t legally immune, they wouldn’t risk the legal liability that could arise from hosting the lies, slander and threats of Donald Trump,” said Kate Ruane, senior legislative adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter and other platforms could ditch moderation altogether and let the lower common denominator prevail.

Such unmonitored services could easily be dominated by trolls, such as 8chan, which is notorious for its graphic and extremist content, said Santa Clara University professor Eric Goldman. Undoing Section 230 would be an “existential threat to the internet,” he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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