AOL founder Steve Case was there in Dulles, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., when in 1996 the Communications Decency Act was passed as part of a major overhaul of U.S. telecommunications laws that President Bill Clinton signed into law. Soon after, in its first test, a provision of that act which states that, “[n]o 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,” would famously save AOL’s bacon.
That wasn’t coincidental. In a wide-ranging call earlier today with Case — who has become an influential investor over the last 15 years through his firm Revolution and its early-stage, growth-stage and seed-stage funds — he talked about his involvement in Section 230’s creation, and why the thinks it’s time to change it.
You can listen in on our full interview with Case here. In the meantime, below is an excerpt from that chat about the related legal protections for online platforms that took center stage yesterday or, at least, were supposed to during the Senate’s latest Big Tech hearing.
In that early birthing stage of the internet, [we were all] figuring out what the rules of the road were, and the 230 provision was something I was involved in. I do think the first lawsuit related to it was related to AOL. But 25 years later, it’s fair to take a fresh look at it — [it’s] appropriate to take a fresh look at it. I’ve not recently spent enough time digging in to really have a strong point of view in terms of exactly what to change, but I think it’s fair to say that what made sense in those early days when very few people were online maybe doesn’t make as much sense now when the entire world is online and the impact these platforms have is so significant.
At the same time, I think you have to be super careful. I think that’s what the CEOs testifying [yesterday] were trying to emphasize. [It was] ‘We get that there’s a desire to relook at it. We also get that because of the election season, it’s become a highly politicized issue. Let’s engage in this discussion, and perhaps there are some things that need to be modified to reflect the current reality . . .let’s don’t do it just in the heat of a political moment.’
When we started AOL 35 years ago, only 3% of people are connected. They were only online about an hour a week, and it was still illegal, actually, for consumers or businesses to be on the internet [so] I spent a lot of time on commercializing the internet, opening up consumers and businesses, figuring out what the right rules of the road were in terms of things like taxes on e-commerce. And generally, we were able to convince regulators and government leaders that a light touch for the internet made sense, because it was a new idea, and it wasn’t clear exactly how it was going to develop.
But now, it’s not a new idea. And now it has a profound impact on people’s lives and our communities and countries. And so I’m not surprised that there’s more more focus on it, [though] it’s a little too bad that there’s so much attention right this moment because in an election season, things tend to get a little bit hot on both sides.
There are legitimate issues that the policymakers need to be looking at and are starting to look at, not just in Washington, DC, but more broadly in Brussels. And I think having more of a dialogue between the innovators and the policymakers is actually going to be critical in this internet third wave, because the sectors up for grabs are most important aspects of our lives — things like health care and education and food and agriculture. And that’s really going to require not just innovation from a technology standpoint, but thoughtfulness from a a policy standpoint.
I understand entrepreneurs who get frustrated by regulations kind of slowing down the pace of information. I get that. Obviously, some of the businesses that we back have suffered from that. But at the same time, you can’t not expect the government — which is elected by the people — to serve the people, including protecting the people.