Parker von Sternberg, MJLST Staffer
On October 15th the FCC published an official Statement of Chairman Pai on Section 230. Few particular statutes have come under greater fire in recent memory than the Protection for “Good Samaritan” Blocking and Screening of Offensive Material and the FCC’s decision to wade into the fray is almost certain to end up causing someone to bring suit regardless of which side of the issue the Commission comes down on.
As a brief introduction, 47 U.S. Code § 230 provides protections from civil suits for providers of Interactive Computer Services, which for our purposes can simply be considered websites. The statute was drafted and passed as a direct response by Congress to a pair of cases, namely Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc. and Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co.Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc., 776 F.Supp. 135 (S.D.N.Y. 1991) and Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co., 1995 WL 323710 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1995). Cubby held that the defendant, CompuServe, was not responsible for third-party posted content on its message board. The decisive reasoning by the court was that CompuServe was a distributor, not a publisher, and thus “must have knowledge of the contents of a publication before liability can be imposed.”Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc., 776 F.Supp. 135, 139 (S.D.N.Y. 1991). On the other hand, in Stratton Oakmont, the defendant’s exertion of “editorial control” over a message board otherwise identical to the one in Cubby “opened [them] up to a greater liability than CompuServe and other computer networks that make no such choice.” Stratton Oakmont, 1995 WL 323710 at *5.
Congress thus faced an issue: active moderation of online content, which is generally going to be a good idea, created civil liability where leaving message boards open as a completely lawless zone protects the owner of the board. The answer to this conundrum was § 230 which states, in part:
(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material
(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
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.
(2) Civil liability – No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected . . . .
Judicial application of the statute has so far largely read the language expansively. Zeran v. AOL held that “[b]y its plain language, § 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.”Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir. 1997). The court also declined to recognize a difference between a defendant acting as a publisher versus a distributor. Speaking to Congress’s legislative intent, the court charted a course that aimed to both immunize service providers as well as encourage self-regulation. Id. at 331-334. Zeran has proved immensely influential, having been cited over a hundred times in the ensuing thirteen years.
Today however, the functioning of § 230 has become a lightning rod for the complaints of many on social media. Rather than encouraging interactive computer services to self-regulate, the story goes that it instead protects them despite their “engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse.” Republicans in the Senate have introduced a bill to amend the Communications Decency Act specifically to reestablish liability for website owners in a variety of ways that § 230 currently protects them from. The Supreme Court has also dipped its toes in the turbulent waters of online censorship fights, with Justice Thomas saying that “courts have relied on policy and purpose arguments to grant sweeping protection to Internet platforms” and that “[p]aring back the sweeping immunity courts have read into §230 would not necessarily render defendants liable for online misconduct.”
On the other hand, numerous private entities and individuals hold that § 230 forms part of the backbone of the internet as we know it today. Congress and the courts, up until a couple of years ago, stood in agreement that it was vitally important to draw a bright line between the provider of an online service and those that used it. It goes without saying that some of the largest tech companies in the world directly benefit from the protections offered by this law, and it can be argued that the economic impact is not limited to those larger players alone.
What all of this hopefully goes to show is that, no matter what happens to this statute, someone somewhere will be willing to spend the time and the money necessary to litigate over it. The question is what shape that litigation will take. As it currently stands, the new bill in the Senate has little chance of getting through the House of Representatives to the President’s desk. The Supreme Court just recently denied cert to yet another § 230 case, upholding existing precedent. Enter Ajit Pai and the FCC, with their legal authority to interpret 47 U.S. Code § 230. Under the cover of Chevron deference protecting administrative action with regard to interpreting statutes the legislature has empowered them to enforce, the FCC wields massive influence with regard to the meaning of § 230. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
While the FCC’s engagement is currently limited to a statement that it intends to “move forward with rulemaking to clarify [§ 230’s] meaning,” there are points to discuss. What limits are there on the power to alter the statute’s meaning? Based on the Commissioner’s statement, can we tell generally what side they are going to come down on? With regard to the former, as was said above, the limit is set largely by Chevron deference and by § 706 of the APA. The key words here are going to be if whoever ends up unhappy with the FCC’s interpretation can prove that it is “arbitrary and capricious” or goes beyond a “permissible construction of the statute.” Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).
The FCC Chairman’s statement lays out that issues exist surrounding §230 and establishes that the FCC believes the legal authority exists for it to interpret the statute. It finishes by saying “[s]ocial media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech. But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.” Based on this statement alone, it certainly sounds like the FCC intends to narrow the protections for interactive computer services providers in some fashion. At the same time, it raises questions. For example, does § 230 provide websites with special forms of free speech that other individuals and groups do not have? The statute does not on its face make anything legal that without it would not be. Rather, it ensures that legal responsibility for speech lies with the speaker, rather than the digital venue in which it is said.
The current divide on liability for speech and content moderation on the internet draws our attention to issues of power as the internet continues to pervade all aspects of life. When the President of the United States is being publicly fact-checked, people will sit up and take notice. The current Administration, parts of the Supreme Court, some Senators, and now the FCC all appear to feel that legal proceedings are a necessary response to this happening. At the same time, alternative views do exist outside of Washington D.C., and at many points they may be more democratic than those proposed within our own government.
There is a chance that if the FCC takes too long to produce a “clarification” of §230 that Chairman Pai will be replaced after the upcoming Presidential election. Even if this does happen, I feel that the outlining of the basic positions surrounding this statute is nonetheless worthwhile. A change in administrations simply means that the fight will occur via proposed statutory amendments or in the Supreme Court, rather than via the FCC.