What lawmakers don’t notice is that a lot of the people posting that offensive junk get stopped, again and again, thanks to Section 230. During a March hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, lawmakers expressed concern over some of the worst content that’s online, including extremist content, falsehoods about COVID-19, and election disinformation.
But it’s people spreading just this type of content that often file lawsuits trying to force their content back online. These unsuccessful lawsuits show that Section 230 has repeatedly stopped disinformation specialists from disseminating their harmful content.
Section 230 stands for the simple idea that you’re responsible for your own speech online—not the speech of others. It also makes clear that online operators, from the biggest platforms to the smallest niche websites, have the right to curate the speech that appears on their site.
Users dedicated to spreading lies or hateful content are a tiny minority, but weakening Section 230 will make their job easier. When content moderation doesn’t go their way—and it usually doesn’t—they’re willing to sue. As the cases below show, Section 230 is rightfully used to quickly dismiss their lawsuits. If lawmakers weaken Section 230, these meritless suits will linger in court longer, costing online services more and making them leery of moderate the speech of known litigious users. That result could make it easier for these users to spread lies online.Section 230 Protects Moderators Who Remove Hateful Content
James Domen identifies as a “former homosexual,” who now identifies as heterosexual. He created videos that describe being LGBTQ as a harmful choice, and shared them on Vimeo, a video-sharing website. In one video, he described the “homosexual lifestyle” this way: “It’ll ruin your life. It’s devastating. It’ll destroy your life.”
In at least five videos, Domen also condemned a California bill that would have expanded a ban on “sexual orientation change efforts,” or SOCE. Medical and professional groups have for decades widely recognized that efforts to change sexual orientation in various ways, sometimes called “conversion therapy,” are harmful.
Vimeo removed Domen’s videos. In a letter to Domen’s attorney, Vimeo explained that SOCE-related videos “disseminate irrational and stereotypical messages that may be harmful to people in the LGBT community,” because it treated homosexuality as “a mental disease or disorder” that “can and should be treated.” Vimeo bans “hateful and discriminatory” content, and company officials told Domen directly that, in their view, his videos fell into that category.
Forcing a website to publish Domen’s anti-LGBTQ content might serve Domen’s interests, but only at the expense of many other users of the platform. No website should have to face a lengthy and expensive lawsuit over such claims. Because of Section 230, they don’t.
Some lawmakers have proposed carving civil rights claims out of Section 230. But that could have the unintended side effect of allowing lawsuits like Domen’s to continue—making tech companies more skittish about removing anti-LGBTQ content.Section 230 Protects Moderators Who Remove Covid-19 Falsehoods
Marshall Daniels hosts a YouTube channel in which he has stated that Judaism is “a complete lie” which was “made up for political gain.” Daniels, who broadcasts as “Young Pharaoh,” has also called Black Lives Matter “an undercover LGBTQ Marxism psyop that is funded by George Soros.”
In April 2020, Daniels live-streamed a video claiming that vaccines contain “rat brains,” that HIV is a “biologically engineered, terroristic weapon,” and that Anthony Fauci “has been murdering motherfuckers and causing medical illnesses since the 1980s.”
In May 2020, Daniels live-streamed a video called “George Floyd, Riots & Anonymous Exposed as Deep State Psyop for NOW.” In that video, he claimed that nationwide protests over George Floyd’s murder were “the result of an operation to cause civil unrest, unleash chaos, and turn the public against [President Trump].” According to YouTube, he also stated the COVID-19 pandemic and Floyd’s murder “were covert operations orchestrated by the Freemasons,” and accused Hillary Clinton and her aide John Podesta of torturing children. Near the video’s end, Daniels stated: “If I catch you talking shit about Trump, I might whoop your ass fast.”
YouTube removed both videos, saying that they violated its policy on harassment and bullying.
Daniels sued YouTube, demanding account reinstatement and damages. He claimed that YouTube amounted to a state actor, and had thus violated his First Amendment rights. (Suggesting that courts treat social media companies as the government has no basis in the law, which the 9th Circuit reaffirmed is the case last year.)
In March, a court dismissed most of Daniels’ claims under Section 230. That law protects online services—both large and small—from getting sued for refusing to publish content they don’t want to publish.
Again, Internet freedom was protected by Section 230. No web host should be forced to carry false and threatening content, or Qanon-based conspiracy theories, like those created by Daniels. Section 230 protects moderators who kick out such content.Section 230 Protects Moderators Who Remove Election Disinformation
The Federal Agency of News LLC, or FAN, is a Russian corporation that purports to be a news service. FAN was founded in the same building as Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA; the IRA became the subject of a criminal indictment in February 2018 for its efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.
The founder and first General Director of FAN was Aleksandra Yurievna Krylova, who is wanted by the FBI for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Later in 2018, the FBI unsealed a criminal complaint against FAN’s chief accountant, Elena Khusyaynova. In that complaint, the FBI said that Federal Agency of News was not so different than the IRA. Both were allegedly part of “Project Lakhta,” a Russian operation to interfere with political and electoral systems both in Russia “and other countries, including the United States.”
Facebook shut more than 270 Russian language accounts and pages in April of 2018, including FAN’s account. Company CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the pages “were controlled by the IRA,” which had “repeatedly acted deceptively and tried to manipulate people in the U.S., Europe, and Russia.” The IRA used a “network of hundreds of fake accounts to spread divisive content and interfere in the U.S. presidential election.” Facebook’s Chief Security Officer stated that the IRA had spent about $100,000 on Facebook ads in the United States.
At this point, one might think that anyone with alleged connections to the Internet Research Agency, including FAN, would lie low. But that’s not what happened. Instead, FAN’s new owner, Evgeniy Zubarev, hired U.S. lawyers and filed a lawsuit against Facebook, claiming that his civil rights had been violated. He demanded that FAN’s account be reinstated, and that FAN be paid damages.
Weakening Section 230 will give frivolous lawsuits like the ones above a major boost. Small companies, with no margin for extra legal costs, will be under more pressure to capitulate to bogus demands over their content moderation.
Section 230 protects basic principles, whether you run a blog with a comment section, an email list with 100 users, or a platform serving millions. You have the right to moderate. You have the right to speak your own mind, and serve other users, without following the dictates of a government commission—and without fear of a bankrupting lawsuit.
Innovation, experimentation and real competition are the best paths forward to a better internet. More lawsuits over everyday content moderation won’t get us there.
Digital rights defenders share insights on the future of the internet and its governance in South Asia
Last year, APC organised the Internet Rules: Unboxing Digital Laws in South Asia workshop. We are preparing a new chapter of this workshop, and we invite you to relive last year’s event through participants' shared vision for digital rights in South Asia.
In March 2016, “smart” doorbell camera maker Ring was a growing company attempting to market its wireless smart security camera when it received an email from an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Gang and Narcotics Division, who was interested in purchasing a slew of devices.
The Los Angeles detective wanted 20 cameras, consisting of 10 doorbell cameras and 10 “stick up” cameras, which retailed for nearly $3,000. Ring, headquartered in nearby Santa Monica, first offered a discount but quickly sweetened the deal: “I’d be happy to send you those units free of charge,” a Ring employee told the officer, according to emails released in response to California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests filed by EFF and NBC’s Clark Fouraker. These emails are also the subject of a detailed new report from the Los Angeles Times.
A few months later, in July 2016, Ring was working with an LAPD officer to distribute a discount code that would allow officers to purchase Ring cameras for $50 off. As a growing number of people used his discount code, Ring offered the officer more and more free equipment.
These officers receiving free equipment, either for an investigation or for their “hard work” helping to promote the sale of Ring through discount codes, were not isolated incidents. Across the LAPD—from the gang division in Downtown to community policing units in East Los Angeles and Brentwood—Ring offered, or officers requested, thousands of dollars’ worth of free products in exchange for officers’ promotion of Ring products to fellow officers and the larger community, seemingly in violation of department prohibitions on both accepting gifts from vendors and endorsing products.
In another incident, the LAPD asked Ring for cameras to aid in an investigation involving a slew of church break-ins. Ring offered to send the police a number of cameras free of charge, but not without recognizing a marketing opportunity: “If the church sees value in the devices, perhaps it's something that they can talk about with their members. Let's talk more about this on the phone, but for now, I'll get those devices sent out ASAP.”
The LAPD released over 3,000 pages of emails from 2016 between Ring representatives and LAPD personnel in response to the CPRA requests. The records show that leading up to Ring’s official launch of partnerships with police departments—which now number almost 150 in California and over 2000 across the country—Ring worked steadily with Los Angeles police officers to provide free or discounted cameras for official and personal use, and in return, the LAPD worked to encourage the spread of Ring’s products throughout the community. The emails show officers were ready to tout the Ring camera as a device they used themselves, one they “love,” “completely believe in,” and “support.”
For over a year, EFF has been sounding the alarm about Ring and its police partnerships, which have in effect created neighborhood-wide surveillance networks without public input or debate. As part of these partnerships, Ring controls when and how police speak about Ring—with the company often requiring final say over statements and admonishing police departments who stray from the script.
Racial justice and civil liberties advocates have continually pointed out how Ring enables racial profiling. Rather than making people feel safer in their own homes, Ring cameras can often have the reverse effect. By having a supposed crime-fighting tool alert a user every time a person approaches their home, the user can easily get the impression that their home is under siege. This paranoia can turn public neighborhoods filled with innocent pedestrians and workers into de facto police states where Ring owners can report “suspicious” people to their neighbors via Ring’s Neighbors social media platform, or the police. In a recent investigation, VICE found that a vast majority of people labeled “suspicious” were people of color. Ring, with its motion detection alerts, gives residents a digitally aided way of enforcing who does and does not belong in their neighborhood based on their own biases and prejudices.
Ring also has serious implications on First Amendment activities. Earlier this year, EFF reported that LAPD requested footage from Ring cameras related to protests in Los Angeles following the police murder of George Floyd.
These emails further add to these concerns, as they point to a scheme in which public servants have used their positions for private gain and contributed to an environment of fear and suspicion in communities already deeply divided.
When confronted by police encouraging residents to mount security cameras, people should not have to decide whether their local police are operating out of a real concern over safety—or whether they are motivated by the prospect of receiving free equipment.
EFF has submitted a letter raising these concerns and calling on the California Attorney General to initiate a public integrity investigation into the relationship between Ring and the LAPD. The public has a right to know whether officers in their communities have received or are receiving benefits from Ring, and whether those profits have influenced when and if police have encouraged communities to buy and use Ring cameras. Although the incidents recorded in these emails occurred primarily in 2016, Ring’s police partnerships and influence have only spread in the resulting years. It’s time for the California Department of Justice to step in and use its authority to investigate if and when Ring wielded inappropriate influence over California’s police and sheriff’s departments.
Emails between the LAPD and Ring:
EFF’s Letter to the California Department of Justice on the relationship between the LAPD and Ring:
EFF Director of Investigations Dave Maass and EFF Research Intern Jayme Sileo, a 2021 graduate of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, contributed to this report.