Law That ‘Changed the Internet’ Is Hot Topic During Democracy Event

A view through two columns of a full audience in the UVA Rotunda Dome Room.

The Rotunda hosted a Democracy Dialogues series event on Thursday, “Social Media vs. Democracy.” (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

In 1996, Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act was passed as a way to provide a legal shield for online platforms with user-generated content. 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.”

Speaking Thursday in the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock called the rule “the 26 words that changed the Internet.”

Comstock was joined by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner as panelists for “Social Media vs. Democracy,” a Democracy Dialogues series event produced by UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy and co-sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. UVA law professor Danielle Citron, one of the foremost experts on digital privacy, and media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” were the event’s moderators. UVA President Jim Ryan provided opening remarks.

The debate over Section 230’s power – something that has played out publicly in recent years and has only heated up since the 2020 presidential election – served as a driving point of discussion between Comstock, a Republican, and Warner, a Democrat.

In February 2021, Warner was part of a group of Democratic senators that introduced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms Act. Better known as the SAFE TECH Act, this legislation sought to reform Section 230 and allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling such behavior as cyberstalking, targeted harassment and discrimination on their platforms.

“The basic idea is if I do some action that would be illegal in the real world, in terms of discrimination or harassment, or if I’m a TV station or radio station and I’m putting up duplicitous advertising that leads to a scam,” Warner said Thursday, “all those things are illegal in the tangible world. I think you should be able to bring a suit on those cases in the virtual world, on to the platforms.

“It doesn’t guarantee that you will be successful, but it will say there ought to be some path to redress.”

Four panelists, seated on a small stage in the UVA Rotunda Dome Room.

Event speakers, from left to right, UVA law professor Danielle Citron, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, and UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Warner then referenced Herrick v. Grindr, a civil lawsuit made by Matthew Herrick against the online dating app after someone mimicked Herrick’s profile, leading to abuse and harassment. A U.S. federal appeals court refused to hold Grindr liable, however.

Herrick “couldn’t even get injunctive relief on what would be obviously harassment in any other setting,” Warner said.

“I think the First Amendment clearly means you can say stupid stuff. That doesn’t mean, though, that then gets to be broadcast to 6 billion people. The line I’ve tried to draw is if it’s illegal in the tangible world, you ought to at least be able to bring a case in the virtual world, in case of a Section 230 report.”

Comstock went to the roots of Section 230 to deliver a point about its standing effectiveness. She highlighted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s use of Facebook and Twitter to deliver messaging during the war with Russia and the unity it’s produced among Ukrainian allies, including the United States.

“This man is out there in the street saying, ‘I’m staying here,’” Comstock said. “He is presenting that there’s no gatekeepers. And that was the basic concept of Section 230 – no gatekeepers.

“How many of us have been on a network interview? Most of us don’t get to do that. Most of us haven’t been on cable. You might submit an op-ed or a letter to the editor to the newspaper, but they may not run it.

“But with no gatekeepers, you go directly to the people. So to look at the good part of that, you see Zelenskyy and what he’s done. He’s rallied the American people. On what issue are the American people like 89% or 90% in agreement? ... The American people have seen this for themselves and have seen that unfiltered good versus evil.”

Barbara Comstock, seated next to Mark Warner, speaks to the audience.

U.S. Sen Mark Warner and former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock debated, among other topic, the power of Section 230. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Comstock served in Congress at the height of the #MeToo movement and she watched the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s murder in summer 2020. Both movements had origins in social media.

“Everyone saw the unfiltered [Floyd] video and you couldn’t deny it,” Comstock said. “And I think it had a very powerful positive effect. There were riots and bad things, too, but overall, that was a good thing that we would all hear directly from the people. There was power in hearing that unfiltered voice that hadn’t gotten through the media in many senses. You now see in traditional media many more diverse voices. And I think that’s in large part because of Black Lives Matter.”

While the positive and negative side effects of Section 230 linger, Comstock said it’s important to note it was co-sponsored 26 years ago by a Republican (Rep. Christopher Cox of California) and a Democrat (Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon).

“These two very different philosophical perspectives on politics came together and wrote this,” Comstock said.

Perhaps, she said, that can serve as hope for the future.

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