47 U.S.C. § 230
The Internet allows people everywhere to connect, share ideas, and advocate for change without needing immense resources or technical expertise. Our unprecedented ability to communicate online—on blogs, social media platforms, and educational and cultural platforms like Wikipedia and the Internet Archive—is not an accident. Congress recognized that for user speech to thrive on the Internet, it had to protect the services that power users’ speech.
That’s why the U.S. Congress passed a law, Section 230 (originally part of the Communications Decency Act), that protects Americans’ freedom of expression online by protecting the intermediaries we all rely on. It states:
"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." (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)).
Section 230 embodies that principle that we should all be responsible for our own actions and statements online, but generally not those of others. The law prevents most civil suits against users or services that are based on what others say.
Congress passed this bipartisan legislation because it recognized that promoting more user speech online outweighed potential harms. When harmful speech takes place, it’s the speaker that should be held responsible, not the service that hosts the speech.
Section 230’s protections are not absolute. It does not protect companies that violate federal criminal law. It does not protect companies that create illegal or harmful content. Nor does Section 230 protect companies from intellectual property claims.
Section 230 Protects Us All
For more than 25 years, Section 230 has protected us all: small blogs and websites, big platforms, and individual users.
The free and open internet as we know it couldn’t exist without Section 230. Important court rulings on Section 230 have held that users and services cannot be sued for forwarding email, hosting online reviews, or sharing photos or videos that others find objectionable. It also helps to quickly resolve lawsuits cases that have no legal basis.
Congress knew that the sheer volume of the growing Internet would make it impossible for services to review every users’ speech. When Section 230 was passed in 1996, about 40 million people used the Internet worldwide. By 2019, more than 4 billion people were online, with 3.5 billion of them using social media platforms. In 1996, there were fewer than 300,000 websites; by 2017, there were more than 1.7 billion.
Without Section 230’s protections, many online intermediaries would intensively filter and censor user speech, while others may simply not host user content at all. This legal and policy framework allows countless niche websites, as well as big platforms like Amazon and Yelp to host user reviews. It allows users to share photos and videos on big platforms like Facebook and on the smallest blogs. It allows users to share speech and opinions everywhere, from vast conversational forums like Twitter and Discord, to the comment sections of the smallest newspapers and blogs.
Content Moderation For All Tastes
Congress wanted to encourage internet users and services to create and find communities. Section 230’s text explains how Congress wanted to protect the internet’s unique ability to provide “true diversity of political discourse” and “opportunities for cultural development, and… intellectual activity.”
Diverse communities have flourished online, providing us with “political, educational, cultural, and entertainment services.” Users, meanwhile, have new ways to control the content they see.
Section 230 allows for web operators, large and small, to moderate user speech and content as they see fit. This reinforces the First Amendment’s protections for publishers to decide what content they will distribute. Different approaches to moderating users’ speech allows users to find the places online that they like, and avoid places they don’t.
Without Section 230, the Internet is different. In Canada and Australia, courts have allowed operators of online discussion groups to be punished for things their users have said. That has reduced the amount of user speech online, particularly on controversial subjects. In non-democratic countries, governments can directly censor the internet, controlling the speech of platforms and users.
If the law makes us liable for the speech of others, the biggest platforms would likely become locked-down and heavily censored. The next great websites and apps won’t even get started, because they’ll face overwhelming legal risk to host users’ speech.
Learn More About Section 230
- Most Important Section 230 Legal Cases
- Section 230 is Good, Actually
- How Congress Censored the Internet With SESTA/FOSTA
Here's an infographic we made in 2012 about the importance of Section 230.