Why it matters that The New York Times got it wrong on Section 230

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases involving Section 230. Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH.

Way back in 1996, when Section 230 was enacted into law, it was designed to protect all web publishers, most definitely including newspapers, from being sued over third-party content posted in their comment sections. It would be another eight years before Facebook was launched, and longer than that before algorithms would be used to boost certain types of content.

But that didn’t stop David McCabe of The New York Times — who, we are told, “has reported for five years on the policy debate over online speech” — from including this howler in a story about two cases regarding Section 230 that are being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court:

While newspapers and magazines can be sued over what they publish, Section 230 shields online platforms from lawsuits over most content posted by their users.

No. I have to assume that McCabe and maybe even his editors know better, and that this was their inept way of summarizing the issue for a general readership. But it perpetuates the harmful and wrong notion that this is only about Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It’s not. Newspapers and magazines are liable for everything they publish except third-party online comments, which means that they are treated exactly the same as the giant platforms.

Though it is true that an early case testing Section 230 involved comments posted at AOL rather than on a news website, the principle that online publishers can’t be held liable for what third parties post on their platforms is as valuable to, oh, let’s say The New York Times as it is to Facebook.

That’s not to say 230 can’t be reformed and restricted; and, as I wrote recently, it probably should be. But it’s important that the public understand exactly what’s at stake.