When the law was first drafted in 1996, John Major was Britain’s Prime Minister and Prince Charles and Princess Diana were discussing possible divorce. Mark Zuckerberg was eight years old.
Since the US Government passed Section 230 of the Communications Act into law, the Internet has changed so much that it’s hard to imagine what it might have been without it.
But the law – which granted Internet companies legal immunity for illegal or offensive content which users may post on their services – has played a vital role in shaping the modern world.
“No 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,” it says.
Without those few words, some of the world’s biggest companies such as Facebook would never have existed – let alone have valuations measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Indeed, the very concept of social media – an online world where ideas and information can be freely exchanged across a common platform – could never have existed in their current form.
That’s not all.
Without Section 230 the endless swirl of online misinformation that has disrupted democracies and poisoned political discourse in many countries, could not have existed either.
Twenty four years later, many believe the law has a lot to answer for and a growing number of critics believe it is high time for it to be reformed.
That explains why Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg – arguably the law’s biggest two financial beneficiaries – appeared before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
At times, the two Silicon Valley tycoons – who have a combined net worth exceeding $110bn – seemed to be residing not just in another timezone but a different universe to the representatives grilling them via video-link from Washington DC.
During four hours of testimony and a blizzard of 127 questions, they were keen to play down the problems and talk up the progress Twitter and Facebook have made blocking or reducing misleading information during the run-up to the 2020 election.
There was less interference in the US election process than in 2016, they said.
That claim may or may not be true – but it hardly seems something to boast about.
The fact that two weeks after the poll was held on November 3, a sitting US President is being permitted by both platforms to openly proclaim falsehoods about unequivocal results and claim victory exposes the companies’ yawning failure to impose any kind of meaningful guard-rails on how these platforms are used.
Moreover, according to Facebook’s internal discussion boards the company’s efforts to label false and misleading posts by Donald Trump have done little to stop their spread.
One Facebook data scientist said that labels warning that his posts included misleading or false claims had only reduced the number of times they were shared by other users by 8pc.
The session on Tuesday reflected partisan divisions over the debate over how social media companies should be regulated in the US.
It was largely dominated by Republican Senators, whose questions aimed to tackle allegations of bias against conservative voices on the platforms.
Democrats in contrast, were more interested in whether more moderation would help reduce the spread of hate speech and violence.
One revealing exchange came when Mark Zuckerberg was asked why Steve Bannon’s calls to behead Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top disease expert, and other US officials and put their heads on spikes like in “the old times of Tudor England” did not represent a serious enough offence for him to be kicked off Facebook.
Mr Zuckerberg seemed to genuinely not recognise the absurdity of his position, when he claimed Mr Bannon “did violate our policies” but had not done enough to permanently lose access to his account.
When asked whether he should reconsider, Mr Zuckerberg responded robotically: “That’s not what our policies would suggest we should do.”
Either way, the debate over how to regulate these social media companies still boils down to a simple question: are they publishers or not?
If they are, why should they deserve special legal protections such as Section 230.
If they are not publishers, on what grounds do they apply any form of content moderation at all?
It’s a debate that was not resolved by this week’s hearing any more than it was by earlier sessions.
But that is unlikely to change a simple fact.
“Change is going to come,” summarised Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut. “No question. And I plan to bring aggressive reform to 230.”
On all sides, there does seem to be a growing acceptance that the rules governing big social media platforms can and must be reformed.
He may have stopped short of calling for a break-up of Facebook like Elizabeth Warren, his rival for the Democratic Presidential candidacy, but in an interview with the New York Times in January, Joe Biden called for Section 230 to be repealed and for companies like Facebook and its founder to be “submitted to civil liability” for harmful posts that appear on its services.
That won’t be easy given the party divisions that exist and because the Democrats enjoy only a weak grip on power in the House of Representatives.
It does, however, explain why both Dorsey and Zuckerberg appeared less hostile this week to the basic concept of reform than they have done in the past.
In his testimony, Mr Dorsey suggested the platforms should disclose more details of the algorithms they use.
For his part Zuckerberg acknowledged that greater transparency might be required, although he offered few further clues on how this might work.
In themselves, such proposals represent only modest steps – but the willingness of Facebook and Twitter to simply contemplate reform suggests that it may be inevitable.