This is part three of a five-part story. To start from the beginning, go here.
Section 230 was created very quietly. When former Oregonian reporter Jeff Kosseff started examining the history of Section 230 for a book, he found that few people noticed in 1995 what Ron Wyden was building on Capitol Hill.
Wyden was a 46-year-old congressman from Oregon who had yet to replace Bob Packwood in the U.S. Senate. Wyden has now served in the upper chamber for 23 years—his tenure is exactly as long as that of Section 230, the law he played a central and unnoticed role in authoring.
Excerpt from The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet by Jeff Kosseff. Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Kosseff. Reprinted by permission of Cornell University Press.
In 1995, Chris Cox was straight out of central casting for a Republican congressman from Orange County. Shortly after the Republican takeover, Cox had lunch in the Capitol's private, members-only dining room with Ron Wyden, a liberal Democratic congressman from Portland, Oregon. That day, Cox recalled, most tables were entirely Democratic or entirely Republican: "It was like boys and girls at an eighth-grade dance."
In an interview in later years at his Senate office in Washington, D.C., Wyden smiled as he recalled "kibbitzing" with Cox and getting ice cream together: "I just always thought he was smart, and I enjoyed being around him. Chris Cox and I had become friends because we both liked to talk about ideas, and thought that not enough about government was ideas driven." Rather than rehash those well-debated topics, Cox and Wyden agreed to identify issues so new that political parties and interest groups had not yet developed an entrenched position.
Although Wyden did not share all of Cox's free market conservative ideals, he was interested in fostering growth in the technology sector. He had long advocated for Oregon's timber industry, which was in decline. Wyden saw the technology industry as the future for Oregon. Throughout the 1990s, some of the state's largest private employers were technology companies such as Intel and Tektronix.
Cox and Wyden, working with technology companies and civil liberties groups, wrote a bill hoping to encourage early online services such as America Online and Prodigy to moderate pornography, filthy jokes, violent stories, and other words and images that could harm children.
By immunizing all online services from lawsuits over materials that their users upload, Cox and Wyden hoped to encourage the companies to feel free to adopt basic conduct codes and delete material that the companies believe is inappropriate.
But there was another reason that Cox and Wyden provided such sweeping immunity. They both recognized that the Internet had the potential to create a new industry. Section 230, they hoped, would allow technology companies to freely innovate and create open platforms for user content. Shielding Internet companies from regulation and lawsuits would encourage investment and growth, they thought.
"Why would anybody invest in a technology company," Wyden recalled, "if they thought they would be held personally liable?"
Even Cox and Wyden had little inkling of the Internet that Section 230 would create. Only 40 million people worldwide had any Internet access, a tiny sliver of the more than 3 billion today. Apple would not introduce the first iPhone for more than a decade. Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old. "I always thought the bill was going to be useful," Wyden said, speaking in 2017, "but I never thought that its reach would be this dramatic."
There is little evidence—or recollection by Section 230's architects—that interest groups mounted any significant opposition to the bill or even raised much criticism of it. This indifference likely stemmed from the relatively small size of the Internet industry; America Online and Prodigy were large, but they were only a fraction of the size that Google and Facebook would become in the following two decades. As the Internet economy grew, Section 230 would prevent individuals from recovering damages from some of the largest companies in the United States.