Section 230 is a section of title 47 of the U.S. Code enacted as part of the United States Communications Decency Act, that generally provides immunity for website platforms with respect to third-party content. At its core, Section 230(c)(1) provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by third-party users:
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.
Section 230(c)(2) further provides “Good Samaritan” protection from civil liability for operators of interactive computer services in the removal or moderation of third-party material they deem obscene or offensive, even of constitutionally protected speech.
Section 230 was developed in response to a pair of lawsuits against Internet service providers (ISPs) in the early 1990s that resulted in different interpretations of whether the service providers should be treated as publishers or, alternatively, as distributors of content created by its users. It was enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 (a common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996), formally codified as part of the Communications Act of 1934 at 47 U.S.C. § 230.[a] After passage of the Telecommunications Act, the CDA was challenged in courts and was ruled by the Supreme Court in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) to be unconstitutional, though Section 230 was determined to be severable from the rest of the legislation and remained in place. Since then, several legal challenges have validated the constitutionality of Section 230.
Section 230 protections are not limitless, requiring providers to remove material illegal on a federal level, such as in copyright infringement cases. In 2018, Section 230 was amended by the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) to require the removal of material violating federal and state sex trafficking laws. In the following years, protections from Section 230 have come under more scrutiny on issues related to hate speech and ideological biases in relation to the power technology companies can hold on political discussions, and became a major issue during the 2020 United States presidential election.
Passed at a time when Internet use was just starting to expand in both breadth of services and range of consumers in the United States, Section 230 has frequently been referred to as a key law that allowed the Internet to develop.