According to one of the bill’s co-authors, Senator Ron Wyden:
Republican Congressman Chris Cox and I wrote Section 230 in 1996 to give up-and-coming tech companies a sword and a shield, and to foster free speech and innovation online.
Essentially, 230 says that users, not the website that hosts their content, are the ones responsible for what they post, whether on Facebook or in the comments section of a news article. That’s what I call the shield.But it also gave companies a sword so that they can take down offensive content, lies and slime — the stuff that may be protected by the First Amendment but that most people do not want to experience online. And so they are free to take down white supremacist content or flag tweets that glorify violence (as Twitter did with President Trump’s recent tweet) without fear of being sued for bias or even of having their site shut down. Section 230 gives the executive branch no leeway to do either.
[…]Without Section 230, sites would have strong incentives to go one of two ways: either sharply limit what users can post, so as to avoid being sued, or to stop moderating entirely, something like 8chan — now operating under the name 8kun — where anonymous users can post just about anything and speech supporting racism and sexism is common.
United States Code, 2011 Edition
Title 47 – TELEGRAPHS, TELEPHONES, AND RADIOTELEGRAPHS
CHAPTER 5 – WIRE OR RADIO COMMUNICATION
SUBCHAPTER II – COMMON CARRIERS
Part I – Common Carrier Regulation
Sec. 230 – Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material
From the U.S. Government Publishing Office, www.gpo.gov
§230. Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material
The Congress finds the following:
(1) The rapidly developing array of Internet and other interactive computer services available to individual Americans represent an extraordinary advance in the availability of educational and informational resources to our citizens.
(2) These services offer users a great degree of control over the information that they receive, as well as the potential for even greater control in the future as technology develops.
(3) The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.
(4) The Internet and other interactive computer services have flourished, to the benefit of all Americans, with a minimum of government regulation.
(5) Increasingly Americans are relying on interactive media for a variety of political, educational, cultural, and entertainment services.
It is the policy of the United States—
(1) to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media;
(2) to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation;
(3) to encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received by individuals, families, and schools who use the Internet and other interactive computer services;
(4) to remove disincentives for the development and utilization of blocking and filtering technologies that empower parents to restrict their children’s access to objectionable or inappropriate online material; and
(5) to ensure vigorous enforcement of Federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of computer.
(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material
(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
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.
(2) Civil liability
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).1
(d) Obligations of interactive computer service
A provider of interactive computer service shall, at the time of entering an agreement with a customer for the provision of interactive computer service and in a manner deemed appropriate by the provider, notify such customer that parental control protections (such as computer hardware, software, or filtering services) are commercially available that may assist the customer in limiting access to material that is harmful to minors. Such notice shall identify, or provide the customer with access to information identifying, current providers of such protections.
(e) Effect on other laws
(1) No effect on criminal law
Nothing in this section shall be construed to impair the enforcement of section 223 or 231 of this title, chapter 71 (relating to obscenity) or 110 (relating to sexual exploitation of children) of title 18, or any other Federal criminal statute.
(2) No effect on intellectual property law
Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.
(3) State law
Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent any State from enforcing any State law that is consistent with this section. No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.
(4) No effect on communications privacy law
Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the application of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 or any of the amendments made by such Act, or any similar State law.
As used in this section:
The term “Internet” means the international computer network of both Federal and non-Federal interoperable packet switched data networks.
(2) Interactive computer service
The term “interactive computer service” means any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.
(3) Information content provider
The term “information content provider” means any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.
(4) Access software provider
The term “access software provider” means a provider of software (including client or server software), or enabling tools that do any one or more of the following:
(A) filter, screen, allow, or disallow content;
(B) pick, choose, analyze, or digest content; or
(C) transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content.
(June 19, 1934, ch. 652, title II, §230, as added Pub. L. 104–104, title V, §509, Feb. 8, 1996, 110 Stat. 137; amended Pub. L. 105–277, div. C, title XIV, §1404(a), Oct. 21, 1998, 112 Stat. 2681–739.)
References in Text
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, referred to in subsec. (e)(4), is Pub. L. 99–508, Oct. 21, 1986, 100 Stat. 1848, as amended. For complete classification of this Act to the Code, see Short Title of 1986 Amendment note set out under section 2510 of Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure, and Tables.
Section 509 of Pub. L. 104–104, which directed amendment of title II of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 201 et seq.) by adding section 230 at end, was executed by adding the section at end of part I of title II of the Act to reflect the probable intent of Congress and amendments by sections 101(a), (b), and 151(a) of Pub. L. 104–104 designating §§201 to 229 as part I and adding parts II (§251 et seq.) and III (§271 et seq.) to title II of the Act.
1998—Subsec. (d). Pub. L. 105–277, §1404(a)(3), added subsec. (d). Former subsec. (d) redesignated (e).
Subsec. (d)(1). Pub. L. 105–277, §1404(a)(1), inserted “or 231” after “section 223”.
Subsecs. (e), (f). Pub. L. 105–277, §1404(a)(2), redesignated subsecs. (d) and (e) as (e) and (f), respectively.
Effective Date of 1998 Amendment
Amendment by Pub. L. 105–277 effective 30 days after Oct. 21, 1998, see section 1406 of Pub. L. 105–277, set out as a note under section 223 of this title.
In a letter to congress a “Coalition Opposing Changes to 47 U.S. Code § 230 (Section 230) as Part of the National Defense Authorization Act” (23 Dec 2020)wrote:
Section 230 has been called the law that created Internet as we know it. It accomplished this through a simple premise: You are responsible for what you say or do online and the platform that hosts your content is not. This shield against intermediary liability has allowed countless online services, from the biggest names in Silicon Valley to the website currently being invented in an entrepreneur’s garage, to grow and operate on a global scale. Nascent companies deserve the same playing field that today’s industry leaders enjoyed in their early days. Without fear of being held liable for the enormous volume of content generated by their users, a new generation of platforms—perhaps with content moderation more to the liking of critics on both the left and the right—can come into being. If Section 230 were to be repealed, or even watered down, this next generation of platform will likely be thwarted by liability threats. “Big tech” firms have the resources to comply with new mandates and regulations, so erecting this barrier to entry to nascent firms will artificially lock currently dominant firms in their lead positions.
For further reading: