Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

(Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)


Daniel Funke
By Daniel Funke March 1, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • Section 230 grants broad legal protections to websites that host user-generated content. It is widely recognized as the reason that platforms like Facebook and Google exist in their current form.

  • The goal of Section 230 was to spur the growth of technology companies in the 1990s. Today, critics say it gives platforms cover for harboring harmful content like disinformation, harassment and hate speech.

  • Democrats and Republicans alike have introduced more than 20 proposals that seek to change Section 230. Those proposals range from making platforms’ legal protections more conditional to revoking them outright.

A law credited with birthing the internet — and with spurring misinformation — has drawn bipartisan ire from lawmakers who are vowing to change it.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields internet platforms from liability for much of what its users post.

Both Democrats and Republicans point to Section 230 as a law that gives too much protection to companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and Google — with different reasons.

Former President Donald Trump wanted changes to Section 230 and vetoed a military spending bill in December because it didn’t include them. President Joe Biden has said that he’d be in favor of revoking the provision altogether. Biden’s pick for commerce secretary said she will pursue changes to Section 230 if confirmed.

There are several bills in Congress that would repeal Section 230 or amend its scope in order to limit the power of the platforms. In response, even tech companies have called for revising a law they say is outdated.

"In the offline world, it's not just the person who pulls the trigger, or makes the threat or causes the damage — we hold a lot of people accountable," said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami. "Section 230 and the way it’s been interpreted essentially says none of those rules apply here."

How did Section 230 come to be, and how could potential reforms affect the internet? We consulted the law and its experts to find out. (Have a question we didn’t answer here? Send it to [email protected].) 

What is Section 230?

Congress passed the Communications Decency Act as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when an increasing number of Americans started to use the internet. Its original purpose was to prohibit making "indecent" or "patently offensive" material available to children.

In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act as an unconstitutional violation of free speech. But one of its provisions survived and, ironically, laid the groundwork for protecting online speech.

Donna Rice Hughes, of the anti-pornography organization Enough is Enough, meets reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 19, 1997, after the court heard arguments challenging the 1996 Communications Decency Act. (AP)

Section 230 says: "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." 

That provision, grounded in the language of First Amendment law, grants broad legal protections to websites that host user-generated content. It essentially means they can’t be sued for libel or defamation for user posts. Section 230 is especially important to social media platforms, but it also protects news sites that allow reader comments or auction sites that let users sell products or services.

"Section 230 is understood primarily as a reaction to state court cases threatening to hold online service providers liable for (possible) libels committed by their users," said Tejas Narechania, an assistant law professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Section 230 changed that. For example, if a Facebook user publishes something defamatory, Facebook itself can’t be sued for defamation, but the post’s original author can be. That’s different from publishers like the New York Times, which can be held liable for content they publish — even if they didn’t originate the offending claim.

There are some exceptions in Section 230, including for copyright infringement and violations of federal and state law. But in general, the provision grants social media platforms far more leeway than other industries in the U.S.

Why does it matter?

Section 230 is the reason that you can post photos on Instagram, find search results on Google and list items on eBay. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, calls it "the most important law protecting internet speech."

Section 230 is generally considered to be speech-protective, meaning that it allows for more content rather than less on internet platforms. That objective was baked into the law.

In crafting Section 230, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., "both recognized that the internet had the potential to create a new industry," wrote Jeff Kosseff in "The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet."

"Section 230, they hoped, would allow technology companies to freely innovate and create open platforms for user content," Kosseff wrote. "Shielding internet companies from regulation and lawsuits would encourage investment and growth, they thought."

Wyden and Cox were right — today, American tech platforms like Facebook and Google have billions of users and are among the wealthiest companies in the world. But they’ve also become vehicles for disinformation and hate speech, in part because Section 230 left it up to the platforms themselves to decide how to moderate content.

Until relatively recently, most companies took a light touch to moderation of content that’s not illegal, but still problematic. (PolitiFact, for example, participates in programs run by Facebook and TikTok to fight misinformation.

"You don’t have to devote any resources to make your products and services safe or less harmful — you can solely go towards profit-making," said Franks, the law professor. "Section 230 has gone way past the idea of gentle nudges toward moderation, towards essentially it doesn’t matter if you moderate or not."

Without Section 230, tech companies would be forced to think about their legal liability in an entirely different way.

"Without Section 230, companies could be sued for their users’ blog posts, social media ramblings of homemade online videos," Kosseff wrote. "The mere prospect of such lawsuits would force websites and online service providers to reduce or entirely prohibit user-generated content."

Has the law changed?

The law has changed a little bit since 1996.

Section 230’s first major challenge came in 1997, when America Online was sued for failing to remove libelous ads that erroneously connected a man’s phone number to the Oklahoma City bombing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of AOL, citing Section 230.

"That’s the case that basically set out very expansive protection," said Olivier Sylvain, a law professor at Fordham University. "It held that even when an intermediary, AOL in this case, knows about unlawful content … it still is not obliged under law to take that stuff down."

That’s different from how the First Amendment treats other distributors, such as booksellers. But the legal protections aren’t limitless.


In 2008, the Ninth Circuit appeals court ruled that could not claim immunity from anti-discrimination laws for requiring users to choose the preferred traits of potential roommates. Section 230 was further weakened in 2018 when Trump signed a package of bills aimed at limiting online human trafficking. 

The package created an exception that held websites liable for ads for prostitution. As a result, Craigslist shut down its section for personal ads and certain Reddit groups were banned.

What reforms are being considered?

In 2020, following a Trump executive order on "preventing online censorship," the Justice Department published a review of Section 230. In it, the department recommended that Congress revise the law to include carve-outs for "egregious content" related to child abuse, terrorism and cyber-stalking. The review also proposed revoking Section 230 immunity in cases where a platform had "actual knowledge or notice" that a piece of content was unlawful.

The Justice Department review came out the same day that Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced a bill that would require companies to revise their terms of service to include a "duty of good faith" and more transparency about their moderation policies. A flurry of other Republican-led efforts came in January after Twitter banned Trump from its platform. Some proposals would make Section 230 protections conditional, while others would repeal the provision altogether.

Democrats have instead focused on reforming Section 230 to hold platforms accountable for harmful content like hate speech, targeted harassment and drug dealing. One proposal would require platforms to explain their moderation practices and to produce quarterly reports on content takedowns. The Senate Democrats’ SAFE Tech Act would revoke legal protections for platforms where payments are involved.

That last proposal is aimed at reining in online advertising abuses, but critics say even small changes to Section 230 could have unintended consequences for free speech on the internet. Still, experts say it’s time for change.

"Section 230 is a statute — it is not a constitutional norm, it’s not free speech — and it was written at a time when people were worried about electronic bulletin boards and newsgroups. They were not thinking about amplification, recommendations and targeted advertising," Sylvain said. "Most people agree that the world in 1996 is not the world in 2021."

In a world of wild talk and misinformation, PolitiFact is a fact-checking organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable. Help support this important work.

Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter

Our Sources


Ars Technica, "Craigslist personals, some subreddits disappear after FOSTA passage," March 23, 2018

Associated Press, "Dems to Facebook: Get serious about misinformation, hate," Sept. 28, 2020

Axios, "Big Tech's power, in 4 numbers," July 27, 2020

Axios, "Exclusive: Hawley unveils bill targeting Big Tech's shield," June 17, 2020

CNN, "Trump signs executive order targeting social media companies," May 28, 2020, H.R.277 - Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, H.R.285 - CASE-IT Act, H.R.874 - To repeal section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 (commonly referred to as the Communications Decency Act) to stop censorship, and for other purposes., H.R.1865 - Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, S.27 - See Something, Say Something Online Act of 2021, "Section 230", S.1693 - Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, S.3983 - Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, S.4066 - PACT Act, S.652 - Telecommunications Act of 1996

Congressional Research Service, "UPDATE: Section 230 and the Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship," Oct. 16, 2020

Cornell Legal Information Institute, 47 U.S. Code § 230 - Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material

Digital Media Law Project, "Immunity for Online Publishers Under the Communications Decency Act"

Disruptive Competition Project, (2) Proposals to amend Section 230 (last updated 2/8/2021)

Electronic Frontier Foundation, CDA 230: Key Legal Cases

Electronic Frontier Foundation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Electronic Frontier Foundation, Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997)

Email interview with Tejas Narechania, assistant law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Feb. 25, 2021

Facebook, "It's time for updated internet regulations."

Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v., LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008)

Federal Register, "Preventing Online Censorship," June 2, 2020


Interview with Mary Anne Franks, law professor at the University of Miami, Feb. 25, 2021

Interview with Olivier Sylvain, law professor at Fordham University, Feb. 24, 2021

Jeff Kosseff, "The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet"

The New York Times, Joe Biden

The New York Times, "Legal Shield for Websites Rattles Under Onslaught of Hate Speech," Aug. 6, 2019

NPR, "Craigslist Shuts Down Personals Section After Congress Passes Bill On Trafficking," March 23, 2018

Pew Research Center, Online Use, Dec. 16, 1996

PolitiFact, Facebook fact-checks

Recode, "Civil rights leaders are still fed up with Facebook over hate speech," July 7, 2020

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., "Warner, Hirono, Klobuchar Announce the SAFE TECH Act to Reform Section 230," Feb. 5, 2021

TechCrunch, "The SAFE TECH Act offers Section 230 reform, but the law’s defenders warn of major side effects," Feb. 5, 2021

TechCrunch, "Who regulates social media?" Oct. 19, 2020

Twitter, "Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump"



The Verge, "Justice Department asks Congress for a sharp cut to websites’ legal protections," June 17, 2020

The Verge, "Senate Republicans want to make it easier to sue tech companies for bias," June 17, 2020

The Verge, "These six lawsuits shaped the internet," Aug. 19, 2014

The Verge, "Trump vetoes $740 billion defense bill after Section 230 complaints," Dec. 23, 2020

Vox, "A new law intended to curb sex trafficking threatens the future of the internet as we know it," April 13, 2018

The Wall Street Journal, "How Congress Might Upend Section 230, the Law Big Tech Is Built On," Feb. 13, 2021

The Washington Post, "Supreme Court Rejects Curbs on Online Speech," June 27, 1997

The Washington Post, "Trump signs ‘FOSTA’ bill targeting online sex trafficking, enables states and victims to pursue websites," April 11, 2018

Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997)

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Daniel Funke

Meet Section 230: ‘the most important law protecting internet speech’