Most observers cheered when the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer was booted from YouTube, CloudFlare, and other platforms around the Internet. At the same time, the site’s disappearance stirred anxiety about Internet companies’ power over online speech. It starkly illustrated how online speech can live or die at the discretion of private companies. The modern public square is in private hands.
Episodes like this have fueled calls to “regulate” Internet platforms. A recent op-ed suggested nationalizing companies like Google and Facebook. Others have said that a law currently under consideration in Washington, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), would be a step in the right direction. But SESTA wouldn’t reduce the power of Internet companies. It would greatly expand their role as hidden arbiters of online speech.
SESTA has admirable goals — it aims to help victims of sex trafficking. But the means its drafters chose to do so are dangerous. SESTA seriously undermines Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), a core law protecting both Internet users and platforms.
CDA 230 protects platforms by shielding them from liability for most user content. That protection is essential for contemporary Internet services. YouTube, for example, could never do meaningful legal review for the 400 hours of video it receives every minute. And even if YouTube could somehow do it, such efforts would be prohibitively expensive for smaller competitors.
Laws like CDA 230 effectively protect rights of Internet users, too. Platforms routinely receive false claims that online speech is illegal. Competitors make them in order to hurt one another’s businesses, organizations like the Church of Scientology use them to silence criticism, and even governments try to dupe platforms into deleting online speech.