Section 230 of… what?

In the spirit of Mike Masnick’s Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Section 230, you’ve been referred to this post because you improperly cited Section 230 and someone felt you needed to be corrected by your pedantic neighborhood telecom law professor. So here we go:

What we all know and love to debate endlessly as “Section 230” was actually the 509th section of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Public Law 104-104 (Section 1 of which gives us permission to cite it as the “Telecommunications Act of 1996”), which adds the provisions in question as Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934—which, in turn, is the most precise way to cite the law. (Note that our communications law is informally codified also at Title 47 of the U.S. Code, and the provisions in question can be found at 47 U.S.C. § 230, but that isn’t the actual law because Title 47 has never been codified by Congress into positive law. Instead, we just keep piling amendments onto the 1934 Act.)

So how does the “Communications Decency Act” come into the mix? Jeff Kosseff has a long and great post on the history of how Section 230, the brainchild of Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Chris Cox, originally titled the “Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act,” was mashed into Sen. James Exon’s anti-pornography “Communications Decency Act” (or, the “CDA,” if you prefer) as part of the legislative sausage-making of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Long story short, Section 230 qua Section 509 sits in Title V of the 1996 Act, and Section 501 of the 1996 Act makes clear that Title V itself “may be cited as the ‘Communications Decency Act of 1996,'” because citing titles of acts as weird little acts-within-acts isn’t confusing at all.

So where does that leave us for citation forms? Here’s a quick and handy guide.

  • Best: Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934
    • Update: Amie Stepanovich makes the case that this is confusing because it implies that Section 230 dates back to 1934. I tend to think highlighting the housing of Section 230 in a statute with roots in 1934 is actually pretty important—see the NTIA’s controversial petition to the FCC arguing that the FCC has the authority to interpret Section 230 using Section 201, which dates all the way back to the original ’34 Act. Nevertheless, here are a couple of alternatives if you are worried about leading people astray:
      • Section 230 of the Communications Act
      • Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended [optionally:] by the Telecommunications Act of 1996
  • Good (but obscure): Section 509 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996
  • Good (but even more obscure): Section 9 of Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996
  • Good (but come on): Section 509 of Public Law 104-104
  • Okay (if you just gotta reference the Communications Decency Act): Section 9 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996
  • Okay (if you’re also an abbreviation person): Section 9 of the CDA
  • Pretty bad (convenient and will yield the actual text, but not actually the law): 47 U.S.C. § 230
    • Update: David Ziff makes the case that it’s reasonable to cite “Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 230” for the sake of convenience. I guess I’ll allow it.
  • Bad (because it is not a thing despite its massive popularity): Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (there are only 9 sections)
  • Bad (not-a-thing abbreviation-people version): Section 230 of the CDA
    • Update: If you’re a real monster, go with simply “CDA 230”
  • Fun (but totally irrelevant): 16 U.S.C. § 230, the informal codification of the law that creates the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (I’m pretty sure Title 16 has not been positively codified, but I’m not some kinda fancy national park law professor and leave as an epic quest to the reader to discover the true law of Jean Lafitte’s namesake national park)

Happy citing!

Update: For extra fun, here’s a chart to help you find your Section 230 Citation Alignment:

Lawful Good:
Section 230 of the Communications Act [of 1934] [as amended] [by the Telecommunications Act of 1996]
Neutral Good:
Section 509 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996
Chaotic Good:
Section 509 of Public Law 104-104
Lawful Neutral:
Section 9 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996
True Neutral:
Section 9 of the CDA
Chaotic Neutral:
47 U.S.C. § 230
Lawful Evil:
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
Neutral Evil:
CDA Section 230
Chaotic Evil:
16 U.S.C. § 230
Lawful Super-Evil
Blake Reid, Section 230 of… what? (Sept. 4, 2020), https://blakereid.org/section-230-of-what/
Neutral Super-Evil:
CDA 230
Kosseffic Super-Evil:
Section 230 of the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act
Lawful Ziff-Evil
Section 230 of the Dill-Rayburn Communications Act
Neutral Ziff-Evil
Section 230 of the Petrillo Bill
Chaotic Ziff-Evil
Section 230 of the Telegraph Company Merger Act