Our society is one that prides itself (and rightly so) for its free speech. We do, however, apply certain restrictions on that free speech. Some are quite obvious. Everyone knows for example that they can’t indiscriminately yell fire in a crowded theater. Doing so is obviously dangerous to all those involved unless there actually is a flaming inferno for people to run away from.
On the internet, however, there are no crowded theaters. I can jump from crowded website to crowded website yelling the metaphorical fire without recklessly putting anyone in physical danger of death or injury by stampede. For example, say there was this new start up website FakeStartupSite.com. Say I had a grudge against the creator of this website, so I go on to reddit (or digg or wherever you prefer) and make a post saying that FakeStartupSite.com gives any visitor such a nasty computer virus that their whole machine crashes and leaves them stuck watching the nyan cat video on loop over and over again.
This is a post I know to be a complete lie but assuming others believe it, this would hurt or even ruin FakeStartupSite.com’s business. I have claimed something which I know to be factually incorrect with the intent of causing harm. The legal term for this is libel.
Now this situation isn’t new to the internet. Libel can take many forms. There are other forms of unprotected speech that seem to be even more pertinent to the internet than libel. Police watch for the spread of things like child pornography and classified information across the web. Hate speech and threats are also unprotected speech.
Back in the day when these kinds of statements could be easily distributed in newspapers, reparations were easy. A newspaper doesn’t publish its material without reviewing it first. The New York Times then is responsible for the contents of its paper.
But for a website like reddit to review all of its posts before the allow them to go online would stifle the whole appeal of the site. The internet allows for user interactivity in a way that just wasn’t possible before its invention. Its just silly to expect a website to be able to filter out all of the bad material. And to inhibit the ability of sites to allow user interaction would be squandering one of the greatest capabilities of the internet
Our justice system, however, decided in Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co. that if a site performed any sort of editing at all, then it could be held liable for any unprotected material that makes it through to the site because they in esscence became a publisher. Thinking that this would cause sites to implement even tougher censorship restrictions, this actually would encourage sites to remove all censorship in order to avoid being liable
As anyone who has ever been to completely unrestricted sites can attest, there can be a real benefit to having a censored site. Facebook would be a much different place if Facebook didn’t keep some of the more disturbing parts of the web from its pages.
Congress then passed the Communications Decency Act and in Section 230 they state that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene…” This put in place a new rule that allowed sites to create good faith censorship of obscene materials without them being liable for anything that falls through the cracks.
And its a good thing Section 230 is still around. The internet would be quite a different place.