This Labor Day weekend, 17.5 million passengers will travel through American airports, and more will hit the roads to catch one last summer vacation. Millions will use the internet to help plan their trips. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp help them pick destinations, restaurants and attractions. Home-rental services like Airbnb, Vrbo or HomeAway provide a growing alternative to traditional hotels.
With more information and options via the internet than ever, there’s never been a better time to travel. However, many of these services would struggle if it weren’t for a specific type of online freedom — one that isn’t as popular with politicians as it once was.
Internet platforms like these rely not on their own travel expertise, but on the input and resources of millions of everyday people brought together online. They came about in part thanks to a 1996 law that’s making news today: Section 230. Passed when the internet was just ramping up, it’s still important for everything from your social media feed to Wikipedia.
The law established that websites and online services are not the “publishers” of the content their users post. For example, Yelp provides a place for countless restaurant reviewers to share their thoughts. This law prevents the company from being sued for what individual reviewers write, except in a few extreme cases.
Section 230 also established a “Good Samaritan” clause allowing websites to set their own rules regarding what to allow. Together, these provisions generally mean that you don’t sue an internet platform where anyone can post something, but you might sue a person who posts something harmful or fraudulent.
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Now, politicians on both the left and the right have Section 230 in their crosshairs. One congressman recently suggested taking its protections away from Airbnb, Vrbo and other homesharing platforms if users who post rentals aren’t in compliance with rules and regulations in their local areas. This would force internet companies to constantly cross-check rental listings that they did not create with a complicated tangle of ever-changing rental regulations in thousands of places.
As Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman noted when discussing a similar issue before the courts, without Section 230 protections, local governments could overload the short-term rental process with fees and rules, possibly “lead(ing) to the end of online marketplaces” and certainly making it extremely difficult for new platforms offering these services to emerge and compete.
Upset by the aspects of the internet they don’t like, some Republicans and Democrats have even argued for more radical changes to Section 230. This would endanger the review sites that help guide many of us on our travels. As my Mercatus Center colleagues Chris Koopman, Matt Mitchell and Adam Thierer have discussed, review sites are an influential tool that “give consumers a powerful voice in economic transactions” and no longer limit knowledge to word of mouth or the opinions of experts.
Particularly in new and unfamiliar locales, user-generated reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be a way to get off the beaten path and find previously hidden gems. Without Section 230, review sites would have to screen everything and would be hesitant to post some useful information.
Much of the conversation around Section 230 has focused on social media and search engines like Facebook and Google. While there are certainly tricky issues with those services, it’s easy to forget about the smaller resources that make our lives easier or more affordable. The internet has changed the way many of us travel for the better, and changing Section 230 is a roadblock we don’t need.