Falling In Love With Section 230

The story of how I became obsessed with twenty-six life-changing words

Baby Jess (1999). Probably Tweeting about #Section230.

In honor of Section 230’s 25th anniversary, I’m answering the number one question I receive from law students, colleagues, and anyone that comes across my (in)famous wrist tattoo: How did you fall in love with Section 230?

I’ve been told it’s not exactly routine for incoming law students to have already found a field they’re passionate about; much less, a legal code. My peers often remark that it’s amazing I already know what it is I want to do. I’ve always found that funny. Because up until law school, I had no idea what I wanted in life, and no matter what I tried, I never felt like I truly fit in anywhere.

Looking back on the experiences that shaped the person I am today, it was inevitable I would cross-paths with Section 230.

I owe it to my parents for exposing me to computers and the Internet early on in my childhood. Growing up, I was enamored with the Internet. The earliest memory I can recall is my mom showing me how to send my very first email. I remember this burning curiosity I had about how email worked and who else I could communicate with online. From there, I set up an AOL Instant Message account (AIM) which I used to talk with a few buddies from class. I was hooked.

My younger brother and I would spend every single afternoon and evening in the basement playing on our Gateway 2000 computer. Our first encounters with the world wide web were raw, crude, shocking, and weird, yet enchanting. Our curiosity often got the best of us. As a result, our dad spent countless weekend afternoons muttering expletives under his breath as he attempted to exorcise whatever fresh hell we picked up from exploring notoriously virus-ridden sites like goggle.com.

Meanwhile, that burning curiosity I had about communicating with other people online would eventually unlock the next phase of my fascination with the digital realm. One summer afternoon, my babysitter introduced me to what became my very first online community: Neopets. While pretty locked down, for the most part, Neopets gave me a small and sheltered experience of interacting with strangers on the web. I participated in the heavily moderated message boards and I created a shop for other Neopians to visit and purchase my wares.

From Neopets, I stumbled upon Club Penguin where I was introduced to real-time chatting with online players. In search of edgier communities, I found Habbo Hotel and RuneScape. I made a secret Myspace (sorry mom and dad!) and got myself into some pretty…wacky…conversations with randoms on Omegle and Chatroulette.

I didn’t have a ton of close friends growing up. I was always kind of the weird kid that had just moved into town. My family moved around quite a bit for my dad’s work. So, I was usually the third-wheel to most already established childhood and neighborhood cliques. Perhaps, that’s why I loved online communities so much. Moving never meant having to say goodbye to my Internet friends. And on the Internet, it wasn’t just okay to be weird, it was expected.

Unsurprisingly, getting grounded for Internet shenanigans was a typical Tuesday in the Miers household. I’ll never forget the day my brother and I discovered Wikipedia. We were beside ourselves knowing that Internet strangers could read whatever stupid comments we left on totally mundane pages.

My poor mother, who used to work for my very Catholic middle school, was often pulled into conferences with my teachers, usually for something I did in computer class, like defacing the Wiki page my class was supposed to use for a homework assignment. In my defense, it shouldn’t have been that easy to edit Jesus’ Wikipedia page.

When I say I grew up with the Internet, I really did just that. I grew up. Online communities taught me how to type fast and socialize responsibly; My secret Myspace page forced me to learn HTML. And even though my parents tried their hardest to protect me from myself with parental controls, I learned how to write keyloggers and rudimentary password crackers — a skill that landed me a competitive cybersecurity internship just out of high school.

Along the way, I even became a rehabilitated and socially productive member of the Wikipedia community.

The Internet defined my adolescence, making me the person I am today.

When I started high school, my journalism teacher noticed I had a gift for communication. He had formerly worked for the Washington Post, which I always found quite inspiring. As consequence, he was a ruthless editor when it came to my writing. He turned me into a proper advocate and indoctrinated me in his tightly-held beliefs about free speech and censorship. The First Amendment was my first ever “Section 230.”

I eventually became the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. Coincidentally, this was also the same year the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were heating up. My love for the Internet coupled with my newfound appreciation for the First Amendment made me quite the impassioned 16-year-old firebrand that my high school probably didn’t want or need. I spent most of my senior year writing about online censorship and begging my friends to participate in SOPA “blackouts.” I needed my generation to care more about the Internet.

Seems familiar.

I toyed with following a career in media and communications. After all, I thought I was going to be just like my high school journalism hero. I excelled in my government, English and literature, and debate courses. I struggled, however, with math and science, which I always found hard to reconcile with the fact that I was raised by two incredibly brilliant Ph.D-carrying scientists. Hence, my decision to pursue Computer Science struck many as rather odd.

I knew that I needed a degree that would lend itself to a stable career. Realistically, journalism wasn’t it. I figured Computer Science would cater to my passion for technology while providing a roof over my head. I don’t regret getting my CS degree, but I’ll also never forget how miserable my college experience turned out. You see, what they don’t tell you is that Computer Science is really just a fancy applied math degree. So, I spent four years struggling to keep my head above water in classes that I barely understood, didn’t care about, and couldn’t be less interested in. Several professors suggested I drop out. I’m glad I didn’t.

As much as I hated Computer Science, there was one class I was really good at. That class was Prof. Tamera Maddox’s CS 306: Internet Law and Ethics. The rumor around the engineering school was that CS 306 was the most dreaded required course in the CS curriculum. It was everything that most engineers hated. Writing, speaking, debating, and researching. No coding and no math.

Because Prof. Maddox is also an attorney, she taught her class just like a law school elective. We worked out of a casebook, baby-briefed the assigned cases, wrote legal research papers, and our final grade was based on our performance in a mock trial requiring us to apply some of the basic Internet law concepts we studied throughout the year. (I actually volunteered for a second mock trial because we didn’t have enough students that year!).

My husband HATED CS 306. Meanwhile, I was thriving.

We briefly covered ACLU v. Reno which was my first introduction to the Communications Decency Act. That case shook me to my core. I couldn’t believe Congress came that close to foreclosing on the life-changing experiences I had with the online world.

In doing research for CS 306, I stumbled upon the Technology and Marketing Law Blog, co-authored by my now law school advisor and intellectual hero, Prof. Eric Goldman. We didn’t really cover Section 230 in CS 306. But I did cover it in deep-diving Prof. Goldman’s blog. Though my class eventually ended, my fascination with Section 230 had only just begun.

I knew after my experience with CS 306 that I wasn’t destined to be a software engineer. I was destined to be a tenacious advocate for the one thing I had always known and loved:

The Internet.

Section 230 beautifully combines my devotion to promoting free speech with my intrinsic, deeply-held, belief that the Internet is the world’s greatest invention and therefore it must be protected at all costs. To think that a mere twenty-six words granted me the wonderful experiences that deeply influenced my formative years, astounds me to this day. At the same time, it terrifies me that there exists a very real possibility that future generations may not ever get to enjoy the wonders of the Internet because Congress has, once again, come so close to destroying it.

I know it seems like the Internet is awful these days. But the reality is that the Internet has come a long way since the early days of the web. For starters, it’s much harder for two curious kids up to no good in their parents’ basement to stumble upon hardcore pornography, because Section 230 has given way to so much innovation in protecting children online.

Today, search engines are more precise. Users land on inappropriate and adult content by choice, not chance. Sophisticated anti-malware software protects us from getting casually pwned by bad actors; Wikipedia vastly improved their community moderation efforts so that angsty pre-teens can’t easily rewrite history; And when it comes to children communicating with online strangers, advancements in AI and filtering technologies allow sites like Roblox to spot and prevent grooming. The Internet is a much safer place today than it was twenty years ago when I got started. Section 230 ensured those improvements.

Today, Section 230 ensures we’ll keep improving.

With Section 230 turning 25 this year, I expect we’ll see many suggestions that the law is long overdue for an update. Those suggestions disregard the decade's worth of improvements we’ve made since 230’s enactment. Worse, they reflect the unfortunate sentiment that we’ve reached the apex of the Internet’s innovative potential. More likely though, is that we’re not even close to realizing the Internet’s greatness.

The Internet’s history of innovative success suggests that the next 25 years will present many more opportunities for progressing towards a digital arcadia. But that’s only if we continue to cultivate a free and open market that caters to and encourages such progress. We can start by leaving Section 230 unscathed when contemplating future Internet regulations.

Long story short, by falling in love with the Internet and free speech, it was only natural I would fall in love with Section 230.

3L at Santa Clara Law | Policy Specialist @ Google | Scholarship: Section 230 and content moderation | Twitter: @jess_miers | opinions are my own