NARRATION: In 1995, Senator James Exon brought a blue binder to the floor of the Senate. It was full of, well
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 6-14-95):JAMES EXON (D-NE): The most hardcore, perverse types of pornography.
NARRATION: The images came from the Internet. Exon wanted his fellow senators to realize what kids could see
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 6-14-95):JAMES EXON: Come by my desk and take a look at this disgusting material.
NARRATION:with just the click of a button.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-18-97):NEWS REPORT: Its certainly not hard to find.TEENAGE GIRL: And, I was just like, Dad, get a load of this.
NARRATION: In the mid-90s, Americans debated how to handle all kinds of objectionable content on the Web, including hate speech and defamation. Out of that debate came a law that helped create the modern Internet, and now both Republicans and Democrats want it changed. Its called:
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 5-28-20):PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Section 230.
ARCHIVAL (THE WEEKLY, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2020):JOSEPH BIDEN: Section 230 should be revoked.
NARRATION: But what does that law actually do? And what would happen to the Internet if we changed it?
TEXT ON SCREEN:OPEN SOURCEDRECODE BY VOXWITH RETRO REPORT
NARRATION: The thing to remember about the 90s is
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 8-6-13):SINGING: On your mark, get set, were riding on the Internet.
NARRATION:the Internet was young and few people really understood it.
ARCHIVAL (TODAY SHOW, NBC, 6-13-14):KATIE COURIC: Allison, can you explain what Internet is?
NARRATION: It seemed cool.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 6-13-14):BILL GATES: Well, its very hip to be on the Internet right now.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 8-6-13):TEENAGE BOY: Now that Im on the Internet, Id rather be on my computer than doing just about anything.TEENAGE GIRL: Its really cool.
NARRATION: But we hadnt agreed on what to do with all the objectionable content, or if we should do anything. James Exon, the senator with the porn binder, wanted the government to clean up the Internet by effectively making indecent material like porn illegal online.
DANIELLE CITRON (PROFESSOR OF LAW, BOSTON UNIVERSITY): And so he proposed an amendment to the Telecommunications Act called the Decency Act. The Communications Decency Act.
NARRATION: But two members of Congress, Christopher Cox and Ron Wyden, thought that companies would do a better job cleaning the Internet up themselves. There was just one big legal problem.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 6-12-96):CHRISTOPHER COX (R-CA): There were court cases that perversely made Internet providers liable if they tried to exercise editorial discretion, keep smut off the Internet, and so on.
NARRATION: At the time, courts held that Internet providers like Prodigy, which moderated some user content, were potentially liable for anything their users posted. So the companies faced a choice: clean up their websites and risk getting sued or go totally hands off and face no legal consequences. Cox and Wyden didnt like that.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 8-4-95):CHRISTOPHER COX: That is backwards. We want to encourage people like Prodigy, like CompuServe, like America Online, like the new Microsoft Network to do everything possible for us the customer to help us control what comes in and what our children see.
NARRATION: So Cox and Wyden wrote a provision, Section 230, that let companies moderate content without being on the legal hook for it. Their hope was that Internet companies would, in good faith, police objectionable content on the Web.
RON WYDEN: We came to call it the sword and the shield. And the sword is the ability to take down horrible stuff on the Internet. The shield is the protection from frivolous litigation.
NARRATION: Section 230 was added to Senator Exons Communications Decency Act, and the whole thing passed in 1996. But then Exons porn ban ran into one big wall: the First Amendment.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 6-12-96):JUDY WOODRUFF: Free speech advocates are hailing a ruling. The U.S. government cannot enforce the Communications Decency Act without violating the constitutional right to free speech.
CARRIE GOLDBERG (ATTORNEY): You, you probably guessed that because, uh, theres spoiler alert, theres porn on the Internet.
NARRATION: But the courts let Section 230 stand. And that little law created a massive industry.
JEFF KOSSEFF (CYBERSECURITY ASSISTANT LAW PROFESSOR, U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY, AUTHOR, THE TWENTY-SIX WORDS THAT CREATED THE INTERNET): So you think about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, even Wikipedia. None of these business models could exist in their current forms if the platforms had to defend in court the veracity of every single thing that people post.
NARRATION: The story of Section 230 is the story of the Internet: more and more people posting what they want online, and websites not getting sued for it because of their legal shield. The dark side of that story started pretty early: in 1995, when an anonymous user on AOL impersonated a man named Kenneth Zeran and used his name and phone number to sell T-shirts glorifying the Oklahoma City bombing.
ERIC GOLDMAN (LAW PROFESSOR, SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY): At the time, it was a fairly novel approach of, really, ruining someones life.
NARRATION: After receiving a tsunami of threatening phone calls, Zeran begged AOL to take down the anonymous users ads.
DANIELLE CITRON: They, for a while, would take them down. But then they stopped listening to him. He was annoying. They just moved on.
NARRATION: Zeran sued AOL in 1996. But the court said Section 230 allowed AOL to leave up the posts even after Zeran reported them. AOL got to use Section 230s shield, in other words, without ever having to touch its sword.
JEFF KOSSEFF: It becomes, effectively, the law of the land. You could keep up the content no matter how horrific, how defamatory it is, and you are not going to be liable for it.
NARRATION: Carrie Goldberg is a lawyer who says the broad immunity Section 230s shield gives Internet companies has made some of them lazy and irresponsible.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: Section 230 is not a law that protects free speech. Section 230 is a law that protects an industry.
NARRATION: Four years ago, her client, Matthew Herrick, was impersonated by a vengeful ex-boyfriend on the dating app, Grindr.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: He would create profiles using Matthews picture and his name and then send unwitting people to Matthews home and to his job to have sex with Matthew.
ARCHIVAL (WCBS, 1-7-19):NEWS REPORT: Matthew Herrick says for months he couldnt go to the restaurants where he waited tables, or his home, without men he didnt know approaching him for sex or drugs.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: Matthew was receiving sometimes 23 people in person at his home. And often, Matthews ex would say that Matthew was into rape fantasies. So he was setting Matthew up to be sexually assaulted.
ARCHIVAL (WCBS, 1-7-19):LISA ROZNER: Herrick said he filed 50 complaints with Grindr and the company never did anything.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: We were suing them, ultimately, for releasing a dangerous product onto the marketplace.
NARRATION: But the court said that, just like in the Zeran-AOL case, Grindr didnt have to help Herrick.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: It was, in my opinion, the most expansive and extravagant interpretation of Section 230 to date.
NARRATION: Goldberg thinks that Section 230 should be changed or revoked so people like Herrick could sue for Internet companies negligence.
CARRIE GOLDBERG: Everybody should have the right to be able to sue somebody or a company who has harmed you or is continuing to harm you. And so I see this not as a speech issue, but an access to justice issue.
DANIELLE CITRON: You know, why do these harms happen? Its a combination of the perpetrator and the platform. Site operators should only enjoy immunity from liability if theyre engaged in reasonable content moderation practices. Right? There here has to be an exchange, like, you get the legal shield, but youve got to do something.
NARRATION: Today, Section 230 has helped create an Internet industry worth more than a trillion dollars.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 3-11-20):SENATOR JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): Section 230 is how these companies have gotten big, its how theyve gotten powerful, its how theyve gotten rich.
NARRATION: And agreeing on what it would mean for these companies to use Section 230s sword and shield responsibly has gotten harder. It depends on what you think the problem is. Democrats want companies like Facebook to do more policing of disinformation.
ARCHIVAL (THE WEEKLY, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2020):JOSEPH BIDEN: Because it is not merely an Internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.
NARRATION: But some Republicans claim theres a different problem: censorship of conservative views. And they want to change or scrap Section 230 to make Internet companies do less policing.
ARCHIVAL (FOX BUSINESS, 10-15-20):SENATOR TOM COTTON (R-AR): The big tech oligarchs have declared war on the Republican Party and conservatives. I think its time that we consider the outright repeal of Section 230.
NARRATION: Tweaking Section 230 might help individual victims of abuse like Matthew Herrick, and it could make Internet companies more accountable for the way they moderate content. But defenders of the law say that changing it too much could undermine peoples freedom to post what they want online.
JEFF KOSSEFF: What I think we need are changes that are very carefully tailored and that address a particular harm and that also consider, how do we address this harm without just, sort of, causing total chaos to the existing Internet that we know?