‘The 26 Words That Created the Internet’


Jeff Kosseff, Cornell, 313 pages, $26.95.

More than two decades ago, as members of Congress wrestled with how to build a legal framework around a nascent consumer internet, few really appreciated the future that they were shaping. Lawmakers, and later the Supreme Court, struggled to envision how this new technology would work. For the internet we have today, Jeff Kosseff writes in “The 26 Words That Created the Internet,” we can thank Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from legal liability for material posted on their sites by third parties. Kosseff argues that these companies, whose business models depend on user content, wouldn’t have prospered, and may not even have existed, had they been afraid of being sued whenever anyone posted something defamatory on their platforms. Today, it’s not clear that tech companies have held up their end of the deal, with the recent proliferation of misinformation, conspiracies, terrorist propaganda and foreign meddling in elections. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, have proposed or initiated crackdowns on the companies for damaging content posted by third parties. Kosseff thinks the law could be adjusted in some places but, like many internet law scholars, he says an outright repeal would be overkill. His book includes a persuasive argument that the user-generated internet enabled by Section 230 gives oppressed groups a voice and the ability to organize. He cites the #MeToo movement as an example.