The Internet’s Last True Believer

For more than two decades, Santa Clara Law Professor Eric Goldman has been one of the most influential legal voices for Section 230. With this critical law under legal and political assault, he is more determined than ever to fight for a policy seen as the cornerstone of free speech on the internet.

Runinternet Illustration

As Eric Goldman worked through the four-year law portion of his J.D.-MBA program at the University of California at Los Angeles in the early 1990s, the looming digital revolution lay just out of sight. He knew there were large commercial online services, but accessing their pricey accounts lay far outside his modest student budget.

His introduction to the emerging virtual world came in the fall of 1991 when he began the MBA portion of the program and received his first email account. “That’s when my mind got blown,” he recalled. “I didn’t realize how many problems this solved for me and how I wanted to communicate.”

Email became a gateway. He discovered Usenet, the distributed network of discussion groups, and learned how to dial into bulletin board services. The rules and structures were light to nonexistent. Amid an atmosphere he describes as chaotic, he also encountered masses of people finding ways to talk to each other, driven not by money but simply because they were compelled to do so.

“It created this opportunity for whole new ways of people talking to each other that had never existed in human history before,” he says. “It gave me such enthusiasm for the potential for us to solve some structural societal problems. I felt like this was something worth fighting for.”

In the three decades that followed, Goldman made that fight to fulfill the internet’s promise the centerpiece of his legal and academic work, in part through his focus on a critical piece of telecommunications law known as Section 230. Goldman is today widely recognized as one of the most influential and authoritative voices on this 1996 federal legislation that laid the foundation for the user-generated content and platforms that define the modern internet.

But once hailed a bulwark of digital freedom, Section 230 has more recently become the focus of critics who feel the liability protections it offers Big Tech have allowed the internet to become weaponized against society, a place where misinformation and hate speech are rampant. The online content moderation frameworks Goldman has championed now face existential tests in the form of two Supreme Court cases as well as efforts by lawmakers and President Joe Biden to overhaul—and even repeal—Section 230.

In the face of this backlash, Goldman joined the movement to protect Section 230 in the courts of law and public opinion even as he recognizes that the public mood has cast an uncertain cloud over the internet’s next chapter.

“I don’t think people realize how close we are to having a different internet, and one that they’re probably not going to enjoy as much,” Goldman says. “The status quo is incredibly fragile and probably going to change very soon in ways that they don’t anticipate.”


At its most elemental, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act says online platforms are not legally responsible for the content shared by users.

By the time it passed, Goldman had started building his career around emerging digital law, including copyright and intellectual property, graduating in 1994 with his J.D. and MBA from UCLA.

As the dot-com boom began, he joined Cooley Godward LLP and built his internet practice there. He later became general counsel at Epinions, where he saw firsthand how Section 230 gave companies the legal protections and confidence to create spaces where anyone could come online and participate in conversations.

That was a big contrast to the early 1990s when courts gave opposing views on whether a company risked greater penalties if it moderated content—or if it didn’t attempt moderation. “Section 230 eliminated the moderator’s dilemma with respect to many categories of content,” Goldman says. “It said you can try to moderate and fail, or you can not try at all or do anything in between, and the legal answer is the same.”

In the mid-2000s, the rise of social media and networking created an explosion of user-generated content, leading to Time magazine naming “You” the Person of the Year in 2006.

Meanwhile, Goldman had begun teaching back in the 1990s, and became assistant professor at Marquette University Law School in 2002. Four years later, he arrived at Santa Clara University School of Law. He is now also director of the High Tech Law Institute and associate dean for research.

During this period, he became increasingly public with his views through blogging, speaking, filing briefs, and being called on to testify at hearings at state legislatures as well as Congress. As policymakers grappled with laws and regulations concerning topics like content moderation, child sexual abuse material, and online sex trafficking, Goldman found himself playing a role in the middle: Trying to educate lawmakers and the public while helping companies improve content moderation.

Section230 Illustration

“Professor Goldman has been an important voice on internet policy issues for decades,” says Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Because of his deep expertise on this law, his voice carries a lot of weight when he discusses the potential ramifications of proposed changes to online intermediary liability.”

In February 2018, Goldman helped organize the first Content Moderation and Removal at Scale Conference, where he convened a workshop of academics and advocates to discuss free speech online. Preconference meetings led to The Santa Clara Principles, an influential document outlining guidelines for online content moderation, including calls for greater transparency around decisions, clearer guidelines about what content is prohibited, and an appeals process. Two years later, he founded two nonprofits to further this mission: the Trust & Safety Professional Association (TSPA) and Trust & Safety Foundation Project (TSF).

Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been in the trenches with Goldman for many of the legal fights over Section 230 and internet speech. She says Goldman’s experience across academia, law firms, and the private sector has given him a unique view into these topics.

“He brings a different perspective that I think is persuasive,” she says. “He doesn’t come in and pontificate. He relies on his own deep knowledge and deep experience, and he backs it up.”


Goldman felt the tide shift around 2016 in the wake of the U.S. presidential race. While Section 230 had been important in certain academic and business circles, it had been relatively obscure to the public until a backlash against Big Tech began to swell.

“A lot of times that criticism of Section 230 is really a placeholder for criticisms about internet companies’ power, dominance, and capriciousness,” he says. “It’s not that people dislike Section 230. They dislike the internet companies that benefit from it.”

On the left, critics believe Big Tech hasn’t done enough to combat disinformation, while on the right, critics argue that these platforms have tried to silence conservatives.

In his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden called for Section 230 to be “revoked immediately” and repeated demands for major reforms in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. His opponent, then-President Trump, made criticism of Section 230 a centerpiece of his final tumultuous weeks in office, threatening in late December 2020 to block an annual defense spending bill and pandemic aid unless it was repealed.

On the legal side, the decision by the Supreme Court to accept two content moderation cases has free-speech advocates worried. The first, Twitter v. Taamneh, doesn’t directly involve Section 230, but it centers on a related question of whether platforms are supporting terrorists if they fail to remove them. The second, Gonzalez v. Google, takes direct aim at Section 230 by arguing that YouTube’s recommendations function promoted terrorist-related content and helped radicalize people who committed the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

Goldman filed an amicus brief in the Gonzalez case that summarizes his arguments for Section 230: It expands free speech protection beyond the First Amendment by ensuring publishers are not liable for third-party content, creates a national standard that simplifies compliance, and allows courts to make decisions to dismiss early to avoid lengthy litigation.

A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs, he wrote, could unleash a new pathway for litigation. Platforms will likely react by severely limiting who can publish.

“There’s no doubt that the plaintiffs deserve justice,” Goldman says. “The question is whether this lawsuit is the right mechanism to help them achieve justice. And if they’re reaching too far, they’re compounding some of the problems by asking people to be responsible for things that they really shouldn’t be.”

The Supreme Court heard arguments on both cases in late February, and the questions and remarks by justices left free-speech advocates optimistic that Section 230 would survive. Still, a final ruling won’t come until later this spring or early summer. And as Goldman wrote on his widely followed blog, the details of those rulings could still dilute the law, meaning that “230 could lose even if Google wins. The court’s exact reasoning will make a huge difference, and there are many ways it could go sideways.”

These attacks are frustrating for him because he believes the anger at Big Tech is misdirected at Section 230, and that opponents don’t fully appreciate the potential fallout from their proposed solutions. These efforts could end the user-generated era of the web, he predicts. Picture a world without memes about “The Dress,” cat GIFs, tumultuous fights on Twitter, sharing your view about an article on Facebook, or publishing your own newsletter on Substack. Or, more seriously, imagine not being able to connect with like-minded communities suffering from the same problems and seeking their support and advice.

All of that would be replaced by the next version of the internet, which would revolve around a limited number of professional producers who charge for content, much like the traditional cable TV model. And yet, that grim prospect has not dimmed Goldman’s desire to continue fighting for that vision that he had more than 30 years ago.

“I am somewhat anachronistic,” Goldman says. “There are not many people like me left because I fell in love with the internet, and I never fell out of love with it. I’m still a true believer.”

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.