President Donald Trump talks on the phone aboard Air Force One during a flight to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to address a joint gathering of House and Senate Republicans on January 26, 2017.White House

What you need to know about Section 230, the controversial part of an internet law Trump targeted in a new executive order


What is Section 230? 

Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, and its advocates have called it "the most important law protecting internet speech."

It includes a variety of guidelines for regulation of "interactive computer services," which, today, includes social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook. 

The section, which has been described as "the 26 words that created the internet," says that "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." 

This essentially allows sites like Twitter and Facebook to avoid being regulated as publishers, protecting them from being held liable for illegal posts (with some exceptions.) Whereas a newspaper would be held liable for the content it produces and publishes, social-media companies are able to distance themselves from the content posted by people onto their platforms. 

The section also gives social-media sites the ability to regulate content, such as hate speech, on their platforms: 

"No provider or user of an interactive computer service... shall be held liable on account of 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." 

This specific text protects social-media sites against claims from people who say the First Amendment gives them the power to post whatever they'd like, as long as it's not illegal, without it being taken down. 

While sites like Twitter and Facebook have been hesitant to regulate speech on their platforms, they have removed or flagged content if it explicitly violates their policies, such as policies against inciting violence. For example, Twitter's rules ban hate speech but such speech is allowed generally by the First Amendment. 

Why we're talking about Section 230 again 

President Donald Trump was angered this week after Twitter flagged two of his tweets about mail-in voting with a warning that read "Get the facts about mail-in ballots." 


The move prompted Trump to issue an executive order on Thursday targeting social-media companies' protections under Section 230. 

The order directs federal agencies to alter Section 230 and change the way they interpret and enforce Section 230, according to a draft of the order that circulated earlier Thursday.

It would direct social-media sites to lose their Section 230 protections if they discriminate against users, restrict access to the platform without a fair hearing, or take action that conflicts with their terms of service. (Trump and other conservatives have argued that social-media sites are biased against conservatives.) 

What is the potential impact of Trump's order?

If Trump's order changes the way cases involving Section 230 are litigated, it could have a profound impact on how social-media sites make decisions regarding regulation of content on their platforms. 

But, it's unclear if the order will have the chance to do so. Legal experts told Business Insider's Sonam Sheth and Ashley Gold that parts of Trump's order are likely illegal and would require federal agencies to go against precedent.

"It doesn't seem like it's enforceable. It will be smacked down relatively quickly by injunction or by litigation and the courts," said Kate Klonick, a professor of internet law at St. John's University.

"It ignores 25 years of jurisprudence broadly interpreting Section 230," she said.