Section 230 and the Internet

Scale_of_justice_2_newOne of the most important laws affecting the Internet that you’ve probably never heard of is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The law provides immunity from liability to anybody that publishes information generated by others.

It is this law that holds Facebook harmless for content posted by its users, or protects a newspaper that allows comments on its article. The law shields web companies from liability from things posted by their users. Without this law social media couldn’t exist since somebody would attack a company like Facebook over something they didn’t like posted by one of their billion users.

This law has already been tested a number of times by various lawsuits and the law has always prevailed. For example, AOL was sued a number of times in the early days of the web for carrying defamatory statements or false customer profiles – all posted by its users. There are similar laws in Europe and Australia.

But there is a current lawsuit attacking Section 230 that is getting traction in the courts – and this has web companies worried. The case is Hassel vs. Bird and is being adjudicated in San Francisco. In the case, Ava Bird hired Dawn Hassel as an attorney to support her in a slip-and-fall case. But then Bird basically disappeared and so Hassel dropped the case.

But Bird subsequently sued her lawyer for damages and also posted a defamatory and erroneous review about the lawyer on Yelp. The courts agreed with the lawyer and awarded her damages, and Hassel then asked the court to have the defamatory review removed from Yelp. And that’s where Section 230 came into play.

Yelp was not listed as a party to the case and is refusing to remove the bad review claiming that it would create a bad precedent and is violation of Section 230 rules. They argue that to remove the review would be to admit wrongdoing and would create a liability to Hassel. Yelp appealed the ruling, but the California appeals court sided with the first ruling and ordered Yelp to remove the review.

Yelp’s legal arguments center around the fact that they were not named as a defendant in the original suit. If they had been, they could have been heard in court before being ordered to take down the defamatory posting. They argue that they have been blindsided and never got their day in court.

Yelp is appealing the case to the California Supreme Court and has been supported in amicus briefs by the whole web industry from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and many other smaller web services along with numerous newspapers.

These companies all argue that user-generated content and social media are how Americans communicate today. By definition there are people that don’t like what other people have to say, certainly witnessed during this political season. And without the protection of Section 230, companies that allow user commentary and content would eventually be driven out of business by becoming embroiled in countless lawsuits.

From a practical standpoint you can understand the lawyer’s concern. She successfully won a case against somebody that defamed her, and yet part of that slander is still available to all on the Yelp site. But the flip side of that is that if Yelp agrees to take down the defamatory posting then they are open to suit by Hassel by having admitted some responsibility for the process.

It’s not hard to picture what happens if Yelp loses this case. Web companies will not be able to take a chance on negative information and a site like Yelp would probably delete all negative reviews – which would invalidate what they do for a living. And social media sites like Facebook probably couldn’t function at all, because almost everything posted there – from skinhead websites through pictures of puppies – offends somebody.

I’m sure that the average person doesn’t appreciate the underlying laws and precedents that allow the web to function the way it does today. If even one of these basic linchpins is removed then the whole thing could come tumbling down, or at worst could morph into something we wouldn’t recognize or like. I don’t think any of us want a web where the corporate lawyers at each web company decide what content is or is not safe for them to carry.

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