Internet Archive Showcases a Post Section 230 World With the Wayforward Machine

The Internet without Section 230 would be a very different one indeed. With the Wayforward machine, Internet Archive hopes to showcase that.

Section 230 is a critical section of law found on the CDA (Communications Decency Act). What is the law? It’s actually so straight forward, we can post the whole thing below and it won’t be much reading:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Yes, that’s it. That’s Section 230 in its entirety. All it means is that if you, as a user, post something on a website, then the website owner is not treated as a publisher of that content. You are responsible for your speech. The liability falls on you. For many, it’s not just a law, but also common sense. Without such a legal protection, the Internet would be a very different place. Some might argue that there wouldn’t be much of an Internet at all without it.

Of course, in recent years, there has been a strong push to reform the law. Lawmakers were partly successful in their efforts to “reform” (which really is meant as “repealing” it if we want to call a spade a spade here) thanks to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA back in 2019. The idea was that websites that facilitated “human trafficking” would no longer have Section 230 protections. The effects of this law was devastating. Several dating websites were forced to shut down. Online tools sex workers used to protect themselves were shut down. Offences against sex workers spiked 170%. Speech related to this content was censored or otherwise curtailed on various platforms.

The results pretty much spoke for themselves. This law had little to do with stopping human trafficking. It was a renewed effort to target the sex worker industry among other things. In so many ways, SESTA/FOSTA would prove to be that cannery in the coal mine of what happens when Section 230 is curtailed. The damage goes far beyond just a narrow definition of content.

Yet, it seems as though lawmakers are pushing to have a repeat of history.

Both Republican’s and Democrats have been pushing to “reform” Section 230. Some media outlets have even been going so far as to blame Section 230 for so many of societies ills despite there being little to no evidence that this particular law was to blame. A great example of that is the notorious 60 Minutes special on Section 230. Many have responded to this by saying that the special was straight up misinformation about what the law does and doesn’t do.

Some of the misinformation we’ve seen in general is that the law shields anonymous speech (it doesn’t). We’ve seen some say that it blocks lawsuits against those who defame or spread misinformation (it doesn’t). We’ve even heard some argue that it is responsible for the unmitigated reign of “big tech” (yes and no. It doesn’t favour a particular website because it’s a blanket law for every site in existence today). All of this has one thing in common – since the law itself is not problematic, then the effort lies in redefining what the law actually does to try and get the public on side to “reform” (repeal) the law.

In February, Democrats tabled one of their “reform” bills dubbed the “SAFE TECH Act“. That law would radically change the protection to the point where the law might as well be struck entirely from the books. Essentially, if money changes hands at any point, then Section 230 does not apply to your operation. Did you spend money on a domain? Did you rent out server space? Do you run ads? Are you soliciting donations? Sorry, Section 230 does not apply to you. Rot in jail like the dirty scumbag that you are.

In July, US President, Joe Biden, said that he was “reviewing” Section 230. In the same month, Democrats also tabled The Health Misinformation Act. Essentially, if your site has “misinformation”, then you lose Section 230 immunity altogether.

So, it is probably little surprise that an organization like the Internet Archive decided to partner with organizations like Access Now, Fight for the Future, and many others and create the “Wayforward Machine“. It’s essentially a riff on the Internet Archives “Wayback Machine” where you can visit a site as it existed in the past. Essentially, the Wayforward Machine suggests that it is looking 25 years into the future into 2046 to see what a website looks like.

Of course, the gag is that it isn’t use some kind of artificial intelligence to generate a website and predict what it might look like 25 years later. Instead, it just zooms ahead in time, suddenly encounters Internet censorship, and generates a page of a website that was shut down or suspended pending legal action. There’s actually a variety of warning messages including pop ups encouraging you to install plugins that violate your privacy or offers to redirect your browsing to a website that is more “compatible” with your political viewpoints. An encrypted communication comes in from Fight for the Future asking you if you are tired of all of this censorship.

A more vivid explanation of what happened in the future is also available, showcasing the amount of censorship and tightly controlled information going to schools among other things. There’s even a timeline of events that unfold as the years go by. Apparently, in 2029, Internet Archive Canada thrives outside of the US, though we kind of doubt that would happen given the Liberal Party’s war on the open Internet going on today. If anything, Canada wouldn’t be that much better off in terms of Internet freedom the way things are going, though lawsuits could hinder this anti-internet effort.

Still, it’s a fun take on the future of the Internet even if a little scary. Naturally, the fears about what could happen are well founded given what has happened in the last couple of years. Not only with the efforts to repeal Section 230, but also efforts to ramp up copyright laws, ban end-to-end encryption, and growing monopolistic powers of a handful of larger players. So, definitely something interesting to check out if you have a spare moment.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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