The Apples of Discord: A Section 230 Parable

The following is a work of satire. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

By: William Crumpler

In the country of Zembla, a man named Mark Appleberg discovered the secret to the world’s most delicious apples. Not only did these apples taste better than any other fruit, they could also be grown in a lab in massive quantities, and for just pennies on the dollar. Not content with merely selling these apples to local grocers, Mr. Appleberg instead built an entire infrastructure of pneumatic tubes across Zembla that ran to each and every house. Every home had a big red button installed in the kitchen, and whenever someone pressed it, an apple would emerge. The apples were completely free, and people could press the button as many times as they liked. Because the apples were so cheap to produce, Mr. Appleberg realized that he would make less money selling them outright than he would if he let local companies pay for the opportunity to come into the apple distribution centers and slot some fliers for their business into the tubes alongside the apples.  

The response was overwhelming. Everybody loved AppleTubetm, and soon daily apple consumption surged. Though the flyers were sometimes annoying, people liked the apples too much to really care, and local businesses found they were getting more customers than ever. AppleTube, for its part, was making money hand over fist. Soon, though, cracks began to form. First came the teeth. Part of what made the apples so delicious was that they were packed with sugar. Dental offices were soon filled with patients whose molars looked like swiss cheese. Doctors struggled to deal with the spike in diabetes cases. Things were particularly bad for the children, whose lack of self-control was leading not just to health problems, but also to a drop in test scores as students began binging AppleTube instead of doing their homework.

To make matters worse, traditional apple companies were in a state of panic as their business began to evaporate. They complained to their lawmakers, who held hearings about whether it was possible for companies dedicated to wholesome, healthy food products to survive in the age of AppleTube. In a gesture of goodwill, Mr. Appleberg reconfigured AppleTube to give people the option of switching to a different feed of apples, one that deliberately mixed in apples that were healthier, but less tasty. But, of course, almost no one used this feed, not even the people at the traditional apple companies (though they would never admit it).

The real turning point came once people discovered hard cider. Homemade apple presses and cider kegs began to spring up in house after house as the craze took hold. At first, the incidents were minor. A couple of friends getting drunk and shouting at one of their neighbors, or telling bawdy jokes too loudly in the public square. But things grew worse and worse over time as it became obvious that as many people were using AppleTube to get drunk as to snack on apples. The breaking point for many was the night after Zembla’s parliament passed a controversial measure expanding immigration from its neighbor Pianosa. A group of people who opposed the measure become drunk on cider the night after the news was released, and ended up harassing and injuring several Pianosans they happened across on the street.

Afterwards, outraged lawmakers demanded to know why AppleTube wasn’t doing more to control how people were using its apples. Mr. Appleberg explained that AppleTube was just a neutral platform for growing and delivering apples. It wasn’t their job to police what anyone did with the apples they delivered. However, Mr. Appleberg realized that this bad publicity was hurting AppleTube. Other countries may not want to let AppleTube expand into their territory if the company couldn’t get things right in Zembla.

Appleberg explained to the lawmakers that in theory he could hire people to go around looking for people abusing their access to apples, and block their tubes to prevent similar incidents in the future. But, he said, starting a program like this would create risks for him. If he took on the job of policing how people used AppleTube, then he would become liable for anyone who slipped through the cracks, as well as for any mistakes made along the way.

A family whose windows were broken when a drunken mob pelted their house with apples might sue AppleTube, saying that the harassment was only possible because of the company’s services. As things were, AppleTube was protected by the fact that they were nothing more than an apple delivery company. But Appleberg was concerned that those protections would go away if the company formally accepted the additional role of apple consumption moderator. Cider victims may be able to claim that AppleTube should have known when its users were abusive, and could have taken action to stop them. The lawmakers said they understood his concern, and passed the Cider Decency Act (CDA), which clarified that fruit delivery companies couldn’t be held legally liable for what users did with their fruit, or for any good faith attempt to restrict the access of malicious fruit consumers.

With this legal assurance in place, AppleTube began recruiting teams to patrol the cities and towns giving breathalyzer tests to anyone they suspected might be abusing their hard cider. Blowing above a certain level meant that AppleTube would block your apple supply. This helped at first, and a large number of the most problematic cases had the tubes ripped out of their houses in highly publicized busts. But as AppleTube continued to grow, so did the number of incidents. Cases of cider harassment were rising exponentially. Reports began to emerge of armed gangs of cider enthusiasts organizing themselves as militias. AppleTube’s cider moderation teams weren’t able to keep up, drawing sharp criticism from the communities that were bearing the brunt of these cider incidents.

At the same time, anger was also growing from those who were getting cut off. They argued that the breathalyzer limit AppleTube’s cider moderation teams were using was completely arbitrary, and far stricter than any drunkenness standard enshrined in Zembla’s constitution. They also thought it was unfair to block people for blowing above this limit. Everyone had the right to enjoy a little cider every now and then, they said, and even if someone overindulged a few times it didn’t mean they were automatically going to go out and do something crazy like try to overthrow the government (this later happened).

Stuck between these two sides, every decision AppleTube made managed to upset one or the other faction. Finally, Mr. Appleberg was brought before Zembla’s parliament for a hearing on whether to repeal the CDA. The representatives from the cider victims’ districts thought that if AppleTube wasn’t going to control their users properly, they should be held accountable for the destruction their apples were causing. The representatives of the cider drinkers, on the other hand, didn’t think that a company that was unfairly targeting their constituents’ rights to have apples delivered to their home should enjoy any special legal status.

After the hearing finally concluded, each side congratulated itself for having correctly discerned that Mark Appleberg was the real heart of their country’s problems, before heading back home to partake in the new standard Zemblan dinner: an entire apple pie.  

The next election would settle everything, people thought. If the cider victims won, they would be able to amend the CDA to take away immunity from every fruit delivery service that didn’t set extremely low thresholds for their breathalyzers, and employ at least one cider moderator per hundred citizens. If the cider drinkers won, they would be able to do the opposite, taking away immunity from any fruit provider who didn’t agree to raise their breathalyzer limits, as well as any company that the cider drinkers generally decided they didn’t like.

Both sides were shocked the next week, when news broke that Mark Appleberg had set AppleTube’s infrastructure to self-destruct. In a public statement, Appleberg explained that he could no longer stand living in a country filled with people who couldn’t be trusted with so much as an apple lest they try to burn down their neighbors’ houses—let alone allow himself to be made the scapegoat for their behavior—and was already onboard a flight that was taking him and his billions off to a quiet retirement in a small banana republic.

The first to feel the force of this loss were the apple addicts. Teenagers threw tantrums once they realized that pressing the big red button no longer delivered the expected reward, and even adults walked around feeling an unfamiliar emptiness down in the pit of their stomachs. Then people woke up to the fact that AppleTube had effectively demolished the entire fruit industry in Zembla, leaving entire grocery aisles empty. The Zemblan parliament attempted to assure people that international fruit providers would soon arrive to fill the gap, but this did not materialize as one fruit grower’s association after another followed the lead of the Vineyard Consortium in adding Zembla to an unofficial blacklist of jurisdictions with hostile legal environments. As scurvy outbreaks and cider riots wrought havoc across the nation, Zemblan leaders were left wondering where they had gone wrong.

The unexpected beneficiary of the entire state of affairs were the people of Clamzoria, Zembla’s western neighbor. Years earlier, Mr. Appleberg had come to Clamzoria requesting the rights to expand AppleTube’s network into the country. The famously wise and far-sighted leaders of Clamzoria politely declined, and instead quietly began buying exclusive rights to the international re-broadcast of Zemblan national news media. As Zembla began its bizarre and spectacular descent into apple-induced madness, the Clamzorian Broadcast Corporation made record-breaking profits as millions of people tuned in from around the world to watch the top-rated reality TV show of the century: Bad Apples.

Postscript: This story is a work of satire, and should not be taken as a perfect representation of the history, issues, or debate surrounding Section 230 in the United States. It hopefully goes without saying that apples and apple companies are different from social media posts and online platforms. Readers are encouraged to explore the following resources for a more sober analysis of current issues related to Section 230, including its origin, effects, constitutional considerations, recent executive measures regarding the law, and current proposals for reform.  
William Crumpler is a research associate with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Strategic Technologies Blog is produced by the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).