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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Franks on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Mary Anne Franks writes a very interesting, approachable, and informative article on section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) over at HuffPost Tech reacting to Kevin Christopher Bollaert's (founder of the gossip website, The Dirty).  I wrote about the lower court's decision against Bollaert and his appeal earlier in this post.

As I have also mentioned previously, section 230 of the CDA is typically used to immunize websites from civil liability for posts made on these websites by third parties.

Some of Franks' most interesting discussion comes after the end of her post:

Stepping back, it is also important to consider Congress's goals in passing CDA §230. Popular rhetoric is selective on this point as well. It is true, as so often proclaimed, that the policy goals of §230 include the promotion and protection of free speech principles. Such principles are not self-evident, however. The law states that it is the policy of the Unites States to "preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet... unfettered by Federal or State regulation." As an initial matter, whether the Internet really offers a "free market" for the exchange of ideas is a matter of considerable dispute, and the claim that the Internet is "unfettered by regulation" is demonstrably false (see above re: the thousands of laws that currently govern Internet activity). 
Moreover, free speech is not the only value protected by §230. The other, often overlooked goals of §230 include the development of technologies that "maximize user control over what information is received" by Internet users, as well as the "vigorous enforcement of Federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking and harassment by means of computer." In other words, the law is intended to promote and protect the values of privacy, security and liberty alongside the values of open discourse. Section 230 is an important and complex law, and it is both dangerous and inaccurate to treat it as a blanket license for online abuse.
I am not sure if I agree with all of Franks' final points -- but my views on section 230 have shifted before (I think the Michael Smith who wrote this paper would be much faster to agree with Franks), and they may shift again as I continue to think and learn more about these issues.  But whatever views one might hold on section 230, Franks' perspective is worth paying attention to.

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