Social media websites and apps, ranging from Meta (Facebook and Instagram) to TikTok and YouTube, are generally shielded by Section 230, a Provision of the Communication Decency Act. The language of the act states that, “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). What this means is that social media companies are not on the hook for the content published by its users.
Sure, these companies can enact their own terms of service that take a stand against harassment, social media addiction, bullying, doxing, and other malicious acts, but there is nothing holding them legally liable for the results of violations. As social media usage spirals out of control, Congress and the Supreme Court have begun to revisit whether this is the best policy or not.
Section 230 was passed in 1996 when the internet was still considered a new frontier.
In 1996, only 20 million Americans had access to the internet, Amazon was still a small online bookstore, and even more stunning compared to today, Americans spent fewer than a half hour online a month. In today age, that is unfathomable. To say the average person is consuming social media with excessive screen time would be an understatement. According to Nielsen, Americans now spend 27 hours a month online, 54 times as much as when Section 230 was enacted. Facebook alone has over a billion users.
Social media companies have been worried about Section 230 being revisited, as they would then be accountable for the content being published by users. The argument in favor of keeping Section 230 is that websites like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook could be sued directly every time a user crosses the line. Other arguments are that innovation would be diminished due to the increase in liability, and that websites that contain “controversial” content would be pressured to silence “unpopular” opinions. This has companies and individuals complaining about their First Amendment rights, but in reality, these private companies can choose to allow or ban whatever content they want.
Section 230 acts as a legal shield for social media companies.
The harms that come from social media use and social media addiction are allowed to proceed without the social media companies harboring any responsibility. Even Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg has admitted to Congress that “it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content,” and that Facebook “would benefit from clearer guidance from elected officials.” While running for office, President Biden told the New York Times that Section 230 should be “revoked, immediately,” and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said, “Section 230 as it exists today has got to give.” And it’s possible we will see some of these changes soon.
In October of 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States granted a writ of certiorari for the case of Gonzales v. Google. In November of 2015, Nohemi Gonzalez was a 23-year-old American student studying in Paris who was killed when individuals affiliated with the terrorist group ISIS opened fire in a Paris café. That month, ISIS claimed responsibility for over 100 people killed in Paris. The Gonzales family and estate sued Google as the owner of YouTube. Their claim is that ISIS has posted hundreds of videos to YouTube specifically meant to incite violence and recruit potential supporters.
They take it a step further by alleging that YouTube’s algorithms promoted this radicalized content to users whose characteristics suggested that they would be interested in said videos. Section 230 current shields companies like Google from being held accountable for this, and two appeals courts sided with the internet giant. However, it is now in the hands of the Supreme Court to determine whether companies like Google can in fact be sued over these types of targeted algorithms. Because the basis of the suit is more about promoting content then regulating it, this type of lawsuit and others like it have teeth that social media companies should be running scared from.
Revisiting Section 230 is long overdue as social media harms, including social media addiction, have spiraled out of control with the sheer amount of users and the vast content landscape. Meta is currently embroiled in various lawsuits, including a multi-district litigation lawsuit, involving their algorithm and how it detrimental effects on children and teens.
“Meta has invested billions of dollars to intentionally design their products to be addictive,” the lawsuit stated, “and encourages use they know will be problematic and highly detrimental to their users’ mental health. The various lawsuits are taking Meta (and other social media companies) to task over their content causing social media addiction, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, and even suicidal ideation.
By using Section 230 as a shield, these massive media conglomerates can continue on their current path- raking in billions of dollars of revenue and having zero accountability. It’s time for the US Congress, the Supreme Court, and social media companies themselves to step up to address the insurmountable harms caused by social media.