Connectivity

Some worry Section 230 repeal could wipe the internet of negative reviews. That’s not a positive thing

A legislative proposal that aims to sunset the web liability shield could dramatically reshape review platforms—and even your inbox.
article cover

Thapana Onphalai/Getty Images

· 4 min read

It’s time to plan your summer vacation! You already booked your plane tickets to Greece, so now you need to find things to do. You open Tripadvisor to choose an Athens walking tour and browse Yelp for kid-friendly restaurants near the Acropolis. The photos are idyllic, but strangely…so are the reviews. All of them.

Sharing and comparing negative feedback with more positive reviews is an important part of making decisions in the internet era, said Laura Bisesto, board of directors chair for trade association Internet Works. But a recent proposal to phase out Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could gut the objectivity of review websites and incentivize companies to scrub all negative content for fear of legal liability, she told us.

“We came together because we all rely on Section 230 and intermediary liability protections to ensure that we can have these niche sites and niche offerings, and that we can have things like bad reviews, or good reviews organized in a certain way,” Bisesto said of the trade group, which represents small and midsized web platforms including Tripadvisor, Yelp, Etsy, Glassdoor, and Indeed.

Section 230, the almost three-decade-old legal carveout that generally shields websites from liability for hosting user-generated content on their sites, has increasingly come under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for how it’s been interpreted to let social media sites evade accountability for content moderation decisions.

On Wednesday, a House subcommittee discussed proposed legislation that would sunset Section 230 at the end of 2025. During the discussion, lawmakers zeroed in on Big Tech, calling out algorithms that perpetuate harmful content and disinformation, but some dialogue hinted at resistance to carving out smaller companies. Early on, Republican Rep. Bob Latta asked, “At what point should we consider a company to be big enough to take more responsibility for their platform?”

If the current proposal passes, Bisesto said it will shift huge legal liabilities onto platforms that probably can’t afford to swat away a constant barrage of lawsuits, making them squeamish about keeping up content that could be construed as negative and trigger a court challenge. In a commerce context, she suggested companies that are the subject of negative reviews could claim they lost revenue as the result of offending online content.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.

Platforms “risk a high cost of litigation if they keep it up. They might just be better off taking it down. And then what service does that do for new users, if they take down negative reviews?” she said. “You’re going to lose this kind of ability to have these very niche platforms where you get honest information about different services in the community.”

Christian Dawson, executive director of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, told Tech Brew that big changes in how platforms organize and moderate content would run much deeper than review sites in a post-Section 230 world.

Consider an email provider that sets parameters to send suspected spam into a separate folder. Maybe a user receives an emailed job offer but misses it because it’s inadvertently flagged as junk.

While such a filing mistake would be unfortunate, it doesn’t mean that companies have to stop using filters, Dawson said. With Section 230 in place, these companies “can curate what ends up in your inbox, without being considered the publisher of the emails that are in your inbox.” Without it, the platform could become the target of lawsuits over its sorting mechanisms and decide any attempt at filtering spam is too risky.

Right now, Dawson said, the sweeping legislative proposal is focused on holding Big Tech platforms accountable, but that also means opening up the floodgates for lawsuits that only the biggest companies can afford.

“When you’re talking about everybody but you’re only thinking about like, six or 10 platforms—the Microsofts, Googles, Amazons of the world—it doesn’t bode well,” Dawson said.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.