On Section 230 and the Dream of a More Human Internet

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that has the potential to fundamentally reshape the internet as we know it. As you might expect, this caught my attention.

The focus of the case is a single sentence, found in Section 230(c)(1) of 1996’s Communications Decency Act:

“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.”

This so-called Section 230 has since been interpreted through multiple court rulings as providing broad immunity from liability for internet platforms that publish content from third-party users. If I defame you in a Tweet, in other words, you cannot sue Twitter.

The case in question was brought against Google by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a college student who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2015. The Gonzalez family claims that the terrorists responsible for their daughter’s death had been radicalized by videos recommend on YouTube, and therefore Google, which owns YouTube, should be held liable.

At the core of their argument is that Section 230’s protections should not extend to information recommended by algorithms. There’s a difference, the lawyer for the Gonzalez family argued, between passively hosting third-party content, such as on a bulletin board, and actively pushing it toward users, such as what happens on social media services.

The consensus from legal journalists (e.g., this comprehensive take from Adam Liptak) seems to be that the Supreme Court justices sounded unlikely to pursue an aggressive ruling.

“You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet,” admitted Elena Kagan.

“[A strong ruling against Section 230] would really crash the digital economy with all sorts of effects on workers and consumers, retirement plans and what have you,” worried Brett Kavanaugh.

The Justices instead signaled that such clarifications really should be an issue for the legislative branch to address, not the courts. This is all quite reasonable. But reading the coverage of these arguments, I couldn’t help but indulge in some day dreaming.

Imagine if the Supreme Court threw caution to the wind and radically rolled back Section 230 protections; to the point where it became legally unviable to operate any sort of major platform that harvests attention using algorithmic-curation of user-generated content. In this thought experiment, Facebook disappears, along with Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and even YouTube.

This certainly would devastate the tech sector for a while. It would also hurt the portfolios of those invested in these companies. But what would the impact be on the average internet user? It might not actually be so bad.

You would still have access to all of the traditional news sites and streaming services that are based around old fashioned notions like editors and actually paying people for the content they produce for you. You would also still have access to the recently energized independent media sector, which would continue to thrive through individually-owned podcasts and email newsletters.

What about personal expression? This would shift back to individually-hosted sites that, for a handful of dollars a month, could easily support user posts including text, images and video. Presumably a new generation of RSS-style feed readers would emerge that allow you to browse these sites using attractive phone apps. In the absence of social-network virality, you would discover interesting people and feeds the way we did back in 2005, through a combination of links, serendipity, and word-of-mouth.

What would be missing in this shift from an algorithmic to human internet are many of the darker aspects of contemporary online life, such as slack-jawed addictiveness, or the dynamics that push people toward the worst versions of themselves and away from the humanity of their fellow man.

All of this, of course, is bathed in utopian wistful thinking. A trillion dollar industry won’t just disappear because of a reduced liability shield. Such a shift would also generate untold number of unexpected side effects, such as an exponential increase in nuisance lawsuits, or the emergence of newer, even more insidious forms of attention extraction.

But I enjoyed this day dream while it unfolded. It reminded me that the internet we stumbled into over the past 25 years isn’t destiny. There are other options for how this grand network of networks might operate. We shouldn’t be so quick to accept the status quo.


In other news…

  • In the most recent episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I explore strategies for leveraging remote work arrangements to significantly reduce the time your job requires.
  • A talented filmmaker I know named Sara Robin is looking for participants for a documentary she’s filming about digital minimalism. In her words: “We are currently seeking participants who want to try out digital minimalism. If you are looking to reduce your digital media consumption and are interested to be involved in the film, we would love to hear from you!”  If you’re interested and want to find out more, email Sara directly: [email protected]

2 thoughts on “On Section 230 and the Dream of a More Human Internet”

  1. Wow, the computer tech guy Cal Newport is both reasonable and nuanced in his approach to the law. Kudos Cal, great job. I am both a lawyer and engineer with an LLM in intellectual property. The fundamental issue is “due process” in both the main body and 14th amendment of the US Constitution which means notice and a right to a hearing of your grievance. The problem with section 230 (probably written by lobbyists) is that it ignores the individual’s right to be heard in court by giving absolute immunity to the big tech companies to due process. Section 230 is only a federal statute that must fall to the higher priority law of the US Constitution due process clause and 14th amendment. The Gonzalez family has an absolute right to present their case to a judge and jury. That is the legal system despite the desire for a technological dictatorship.

    The problem YouTube has is they went so far as to “aid and abet” ISIS which is an extreme case. Aiding and abetting is the common law criminal act of 1. knowing of the wrongful criminal act and 2. encouraging that criminal act. Here, YouTube was put on notice about the videos supporting the recruitment of terrorism by both the government and users, and 2. YouTube’s algorithm under the control of YouTube encouraged viewers to see more and more ISIS propaganda thus leading to the encouragement of violent terrorist acts. Therefore, YouTube should have to face the judge and jury for the acts it encourages and NOT be so evil. YouTube can argue in court that they didn’t know what they were doing. What YouTube can’t do is be above the law.

  2. A lovely daydream! My hope with this lawsuit and others like it is that these platforms will have to make a more deliberate effort to enforce their terms and conditions by removing harmful content. Where to draw the line is above my pay grade, but they haven’t made nearly the effort that they could.


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