Few things are as dreadful as lawmakers seeking to do good through legislation. The country – hell, the whole world – would be better off if lawmakers satisfied their thirst for benevolence by helping an old lady cross the street, adopting a kitten, or dropping a few tickets in a busker’s box.
Ask Kenneth Zeran. Or Ellen Batzel. Or yourself after learning what legislative dribbling ties these two and others together.
A quarter of a century ago, Zeran sued AOL. He was angry and had a right to be. Six days after Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people by blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City, a message appeared on an AOL bulletin board selling T-shirts on the run stating, among other things, “Visit Oklahoma. . It’s a blast. ” The messages mentioned a phone number belonging to Zeran, a television producer in Seattle.
No one knows who posted the messages, but it wasn’t Zeran. He was inundated with calls. A radio DJ urged listeners to let Zeran know what they thought of him. Zeran believed that AOL should take responsibility for leaving the messages online. But AOL got a pass.
Ton Cremers too, the Dutch publisher of a mailing list known as the Museum Security Network. Cremers reposted an email from a handyman who worked at the Batzel mountain house in North Carolina. The handyman claimed in the email that while fixing Batzel’s truck, the well-respected lawyer told him that she was the granddaughter of Heinrich Himmler, one of the main men. hand of Adolf Hitler. Smith also claimed that works of art stolen from Jews during World War II lined the walls of Batzel’s house. Cremers posted a message saying the FBI had been notified.
None of this has been proven. Batzel denied everything. She was angry and had a right to be. She continued. His case has gone nowhere.
If we had printed the same allegations in the same way in these pages, Batzel would have sued the company that owns that newspaper and won. Likewise, if we had done the same with Zeran, linking his phone number to t-shirts of clowns mocking those killed in the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in the country’s history, Zeran would have also pursued and won.
But the digital titans of the world, past and present, are exempt from all liability by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Newspapers are only protected from the huge profits digital businesses make from the work of others, mostly content providers like us, you and all the crazy people who believe the world needs to know what he or she is thinking.
Much of the Communications Decency Act collapsed under Supreme Court scrutiny. The law aimed to ban the dissemination of “indecent” material online. Section 230 has survived. Pushed by representatives Chris Cox, R-Calif., And Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the legislation was intended to protect online platforms from the republishing rule, which makes publishers responsible for the material they republish.
If you write a letter to the editor making a false statement that damages someone else’s reputation, the newspaper can be sued, even if it is not the author of the complaint. In the absence of Article 230, this principle could potentially apply to digital platforms. This could have prompted social media companies to control a certain foreign power’s use of their platforms to incite political division, playing the two sides against each other, with a barrage of fake news – de fake news on both sides – ahead of the 2016 US election.
Instead, Section 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computing service shall be liable for any action willfully taken in good faith to restrict the access or availability of material that the provider or the provider does. User considers obscene, obscene, lustful, dirty, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.
In April 1996, two months after section 230 came into force, Zeran filed a lawsuit. He argued that once AOL was informed that the information about him was false, the online provider was responsible for blocking the messages. Section 230 housed AOL. Nothing sheltered Zeran.
The Wired magazine cover story this month introduces readers to these and other details of Section 230. It includes smart, supposedly well-meaning people hailing Section 230 as supporting the protections of the freedom of speech of the first amendment. To hear these people say, overturning Section 230 would lead to the instant disintegration of the Internet as we know it. Freedom of expression would be threatened.
But the internet and free speech exist beyond America’s borders without Section 230. Without Section 230, says Wired, “today’s social media giants could not exist.” Couldn’t they exist if they had to play by the same rules as newspapers and other subjects of libel suits? Couldn’t they exist if they couldn’t feast on wild lies without being hampered by ethical and moral responsibility?
In this case, let them die. Newspapers, broadcasters and others must obey the rules and bear the costs. Their digital competitors are playing in a world without rules and making all the money. It’s time to end this madness. It is time to repeal section 230.
Lee Wolverton is vice president of news and editor of HD Media.