26 words that created the Internet

Nothing like starting the day with a bit of legalese, but it could be important. Also: 7 other things worth a click.

I distribute this newsletter in two places:

  • on a platform called Substack (hi guys!) that makes running a daily newsletter pretty easy from a technical standpoint, and

  • on LinkedIn, as part of that platform's newsletter pilot program.

The two versions are sometimes similar, sometimes not. That's because the audiences are largely very different.

(There's not much overlap. That surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t: who subscribes to a similar newsletter in two places?)

Anyway, both Substack and LinkedIn rely on a 26-word passage in a 24-year-old law to operate as they do, and to be able to give me a home. Here's the passage:

"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."

I know that sounds like legalese. It's part of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, so legalese is unsurprising.

In short, it serves to protect platforms from legal liability in case people use them to post things that are defamatory, or negligent, or even worse.

It’s the Internet. You can use your imagination.

It’s probably an even bigger deal for other platforms with an enormous volume of user-generated posts — Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, SnapChat, and the like.

As Brian Fung wrote on CNN Business Tuesday:

Section 230 [has] protected AOL, Craigslist, Google and Yahoo, building up a body of law so broad and influential that Section 230 has come to be described as "the 26 words that created the internet."

Now, however, [a]s social media sites have become hotbeds of hateful, misleading and dangerous content, an increasingly vocal group of critics from government and civil society are pushing for changes to the law.

Two Republican senators have drafted a bill to "dramatically reshape" Section 230, and "Attorney General William Barr has elevated a campaign to weaken, if not repeal, the law."

Granted, it’s been a quarter of a century, and the law predates almost all of the applications it now governs.

The idea of a site like YouTube back then was almost science fiction. Heck, Mark Zuckerberg had just turned 12.

So, it's not surprising that it might be time for an update.

Jeff Kosseff, whose book about the Section 230 last year was called, quite literally, The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet, weighed in on it all a few months ago:

"[T]ech companies have ... proceeded for years, basically treating Section 230 like it’s a right that’s enshrined in the Constitution,” he said, “and I think, frankly, some of the large platforms in particular have gotten incredibly arrogant. And now what you’re seeing is a backlash to that arrogance.”

But the thing about correction is that it's just four letters away from over-correction.

It’s not just Silicon Valley that's worried about lawmakers going too far in the other direction on a revision of Section 230. Let’s hope they get it right.

7 other things worth a click

  1. The Walt Disney Company announced a new chief executive officer. (Disney)

  2. New trend, or at least a new term for it: “20-minute neighborhoods” in which most “shopping, business services, education, community facilities, recreational and sporting resources, and some jobs” are within 20 minutes from home. (The Conversation)

  3. Americans need to prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic, and with it, “disruptions to their daily lives,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. (NBC News)

  4. Meanwhile, the acting secretary of DHS made a mistake, overestimating the mortality rate of influenza by 200x. This matters because he was testifying, apparently incorrectly, that it's on a par with coronavirus. (Gizmodo via Twitter)

  5. Amazon opened an entire grocery store with no cashiers, but won’t say if/when it might come to Whole Foods. (Recode)

  6. The co-CEO of Salesforce, Keith Block stepped down. Personally, I’ve never understood how co-CEOs can work, anyway. (TechCrunch)

  7. Military spouses have a 24 percent unemployment rate. One solution: ask states to recognize their professional licenses from other states, since they have to move around the country or even the world for their spouses’ careers. (Stars & Stripes)

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