AP Explains: The rule that made the modern internet

FILE - This April 26, 2017, file photo shows the Twitter app icon on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. A tech-focused civil liberties group on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, sued to block President Donald Trump's executive order that seeks to regulate social media, saying it violates the First Amendment and chills speech. Trump's order, signed in late May, could allow more lawsuits against internet companies like Twitter and Facebook for what their users post, tweet and stream. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
FILE - This April 26, 2017, file photo shows the Twitter app icon on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. A tech-focused civil liberties group on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, sued to block President Donald Trump's executive order that seeks to regulate social media, saying it violates the First Amendment and chills speech. Trump's order, signed in late May, could allow more lawsuits against internet companies like Twitter and Facebook for what their users post, tweet and stream. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

OAKLAND, Calif. – Twenty-six words tucked into a 1996 law overhauling telecommunications have allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the giants they are today.

Those are the words President Donald Trump's administration has challenged directly via executive order, one that would strip those protections if online platforms engaged in “editorial decisions.” The CEOs of the three internet companies face questioning Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee about Republican claims of anti-conservative bias.

Beyond questioning the CEOs, senators are expected to examine proposals to revise long-held legal protections for online speech, an immunity that critics in both parties say enables the companies to abdicate their responsibility to impartially moderate content.

Under the U.S. law, internet companies are generally exempt from liability for the material users post on their networks. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — itself part of a broader telecom law — provides a legal “safe harbor” for internet companies.

But Trump and other politicians, including Democrats, though for different reasons than Republicans argue that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity — or at least have to earn it by satisfying requirements set by the government.

Section 230 probably can’t be easily dismantled. But if it was, the internet as we know it might cease to exist.

QUESTION: Just what is Section 230?

ANSWER: If a news site falsely calls you a swindler, you can sue the publisher for libel. But if someone posts that on Facebook, you can't sue the company — just the person who posted it.