Changes to Communications Decency Act Could Harm Internet Industry Growth, Experts Say

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Proposed amendments to the Communications Decency Act could do major damage to the continuing development of the Internet, a letter sent to top lawmakers on Wednesday said.

The letter, written by trade groups, legal scholars, and political groups including the Center for Democracy and Technology and NetChoice, was sent in response to a proposal by a group of state attorneys general to amend section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The proposal to amend the CDA was sent in a letter to congress requesting the addition of the words “or state” to the section which determines what laws websites must ensure are not violated by online content. This change would result in various providers becoming liable for illegal content uploaded by users.

Signatories to the letter slam the proposed changes, claiming that it would jeopardize free expression rights of Internet users as well as the growth of the Internet. Liability risks would force those hosting content to choose between policing all third-party content and discontinuing it altogether. The redistribution of resources to police content could harm the business model of internet infrastructure providers, which has contributed to the industry’s rabid growth.

“By hosting third-party content, online service providers would expose themselves to potential prosecution under literally thousands of criminal statutes on a state-by-state basis,” the letter says. “Keeping up with the thicket of state criminal laws would be a significant burden, especially for start-ups and smaller companies, and the risk of liability would create a strong incentive for companies to minimize or avoid interactive features and user-generated content.”

The attorneys general are frustrated by the challenges of stopping crimes like underage prostitution which are advertised on some sites, according to supporters of the amendment, with one claiming “you’ve essentially given these guys immunity.” The responding letter to Congress, however, states that “nothing in Section 230 prevents the punishment of actual wrongdoers.”

While CDA section 230 pertains to the responsibilities of “content providers,” as opposed to “intermediaries,” there are concerns about the legal definitions of these key terms, according to a recent Computerworld article.

Recent lawsuits have named not only websites, but also their hosting providers, as violators of state law.  If CDA section 230 is amended as the group of state attorneys general suggest, than similar litigation could become much more common, damaging the industry with legal costs and self-regulatory burdens.

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4 Comments

  1. Renee Roll

    It could also prevent the sex trafficking of minors on Craigslist and Backpage. Copyright infringement online is heavily monitored and prosecuted, but somehow making the sale or exploitation of another human being over cyberspace is just too oppressive? Oh, forgive me. I forgot how enormously lucrative human trafficking really is. God forbid that we should forfeit billions of dollars to protect people from the irreparable physical and psychological damage and possible permanent enslavement that comes from being sold for sex. Money is priceless, but living, breathing, sentient human beings? They're just expendable. http://in.gov/attorneygeneral/files/The_Communications_Decency_Act_Promotes_Human_Trafficking.pdf

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  2. anon

    Congress never intended to create a method and means for digital extortion. Nor for low life thugs such as Ripoff report, to make money by altering untrue damaging information that should be removed for free. If a slanderous damaging posting is found to be untrue, and notice is given to remove it, no law should protect its "non removal", thereby giving internet thugs the opportunity to profit from actions that in normal instances would be considered illegal".

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  3. Nick

    Brian, You are exactly right. The CDA needs to be amended. The sites should not be held liable unless they are given notice of the unlawful content and than fail to or refuse to remove it. This would solve the problem and the requirement of notice is a common legal theory utilized in many types of lawsuits. The fact is that huge companies such as google and facebook want the CDA to stay the way it is so they are never liable for anything. Not to mention complete low lifes like ripoffreport and backpages.

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  4. Brian Coyle

    I side with the Attorney Generals on this one. No one is saying that you can' t have your speech but libel is not protected speech. No one is trying to shut down the internet either. There are times when the website is responsible for content. They are making money off of it. Topix and Ripoff Reports are two perfect examples of that. Other sites are knowingly allowing child sex trafficking. There should be ways, in some instances to sue those companies. Too many websites hide behind that law.

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