Section 230 Story: Coping with the “New Normal”

The Internet is often regarded as the world’s greatest, and quite possibly most important, invention. We wouldn’t realize its greatness until 1996, when the Internet, and society, changed for the better. Thanks to Section 230, the law credited with the birth of the modern-day Internet, we live our lives in ways our ancestors couldn’t have possibly dreamed.

Today’s Section 230 critics contemplate an expiration date for the Internet’s most important law. How could a law from 1996 possibly support the modern web? Indeed, critics note that Section 230’s drafters couldn’t have possibly foreseen the kind of impact the law would have today.

I agree with that sentiment.

The past six months have been fairly traumatic. Our lives were quickly, sharply upended, forcing us to confront this “new normal,” head-on. We’ve each dealt with quarantine in our own ways, adapting the best we can. Some thrive in the chaos. Some, not so much. The way we each deal with our current situation is unique and quite personal, similar to how we deal with death.

Since March, four close personal friends of mine have lost loved ones. I recall the first as being incredibly shocking. There I sat on the phone, in my living room, as a Virginia afternoon storm rolled in, listening to my distraught friend on the other end of the line. He had just lost a parent. I strained for words as a heavy, tense silence fell over us; one part despair, one part helplessness.

Like dominoes, two more close individuals in my life lost loved ones, both to COVID-19. These two were uniquely tragic. Both deaths might have been prevented but for the current administration. A familiar sense of helplessness and guilt followed. Helplessness, because all I could offer were hollow words of comfort. Guilt, for feeling like I should be doing more and for sinking into a depression that should only be reserved for the grieving.

The fourth brought with it an indescribable sense of brokenness. Sitting alone in my room, illuminated only by the glow of a chat window, I offered what felt like an empty text: “I’m so sorry.” For the first time in these six long months, the errant disturbing thought crossed my mind that this new way of life can’t be worth living. I had hit the bottom of my emotional reserves.

In a world where closeness is toxic, we’re not exactly left with many options when it comes to dealing with trauma, like death. The sadness that follows is a raw, human emotion deserving only of the kind of empathy that can’t be substituted by technology. It’s what makes death so deeply uncomfortable for all those involved, including those of us called upon for emotional support.

Perhaps that’s why the pandemic seems to maximize the feeling of helplessness that follows death. All four of these individuals are close personal friends and family in my life. Watching each one of them grieve from the sidelines is a type of hurt completely unique to this “new normal.” It’s the type of hurt that can really start to weigh on a person.

In normal times, availability and presence is the best thing one can offer to a grieving loved one. There’s really nothing that can be said or done to lessen the pain; a fact I’ve always struggled to accept when serving in the support role. Simply being there is the most we can humanly offer.

Which is why the Internet really is a remarkable invention. While nothing can ever replace that in-person human connection we might crave as mourners and empaths, the Internet allows us to replicate that connection as close as humanly possible. In other words, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

With video conferencing services, I’ve started a new career and I’m on my way to completing my law degree. But of all the things the Internet has enabled for me during the pandemic, the ability to be there, at least in a virtual capacity, for my friends and family these past unfortunate few months is something I’m most grateful for.

The difference between Zoom and a regular phone call might seem insignificant. But as someone that has now supported grieving individuals over both media, I can attest to the monumental difference face-to-face interaction makes for both parties. Over the phone, we sat in uncomfortable silence. Over video, we traded stories, cried together, and sometimes we even shared a laughed; a type of intimate human exchange that just doesn’t translate over the phone or through Hallmark sympathy cards.

Maybe that’s why the Internet is considered a unique and wholly new medium of human communication.

I don’t think the drafters of Section 230 contemplated the sort of emotional void that the Internet would one day attempt to fill in our lives. I doubt the drafters envisioned a world overcome with disease such that we all must rely upon the Internet to return a mere semblance of normalcy to our days.

I wonder if the drafters thought about how Section 230 would enable innovations, like video conferencing services, that would one day allow us to experience life’s most precious milestones like weddings, graduations, birthdays, and even last goodbyes. I wonder if the drafters expected those technologies to crucially remind, at least some of us, why life indeed is worth living, even now.

I do think the drafters foresaw some of the Internet’s potential. That’s how we got here in the first place. But I don’t think they expected the extent of the positive impact Section 230 would have on our lives today. I don’t think anyone could have imagined it; which is exciting because that means we can only go further and farther from here, empowered by Section 230.

Our reliance on the Internet, especially during the pandemic, is evidence that Section 230 continues to work as intended, despite its age. To set an expiration on the law is to accept that maybe we’ve exhausted the Internet’s potential. Considering how far we’ve come since 1996, I doubt that. Why Congress wants to foreclose on this opportunity for growth is truly beyond me.

Indeed, of all the things the drafters may not have contemplated about Section 230’s future in 1996, Congress leveraging the law to destroy the Internet at a time when we need it the most was probably the last thing they could have ever expected.

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

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