July 14, 2021—Legal experts are speculating that companies may shy away from testing Section 230 arguments in future court cases because recent legal decisions against the defense could influence political action on amending the intermediary liability provision.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act offers online platforms immunity from civil liability based on content their users post on their websites. But recent decisions by various courts that have ruled against the companies’ Section 230 defenses and held them liable for incidents could have a lasting effect on how companies approach these cases.
“People are being a lot more thoughtful when they use a 230 defense, and sometimes not using one at all, because they realize that that just won’t bode well for their future cases,” Michele Lee, assistant general counsel and the head of litigation at social media company Pinterest, said at a conference hosted by the Federal Communications Bar Association on Tuesday.
“The number of companies that operate within this space, frankly, aren’t that many. And I think people are thinking much more long term than just the cases that are in front of them.”
Legal experts at the conference argued that firms would be increasingly selective about what cases they elect to employ for a Section 230 defense. The more attention it receives, they argue, the more likely it is to receive political attention, which could reignite discussion about its reform.
Debate about what to do with Section 230 has enamored Capitol Hill for many months, with the climax of discussions occurring after former President Donald Trump was banned from several platforms at the start of the year for comments he made on the services that allegedly stoked the Capitol riot on January 6.
Since then, several proposed amendments were put forth, including from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, who proposed to keep Section 230 protections largely the same except for paid content.
And last month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, introduced his own proposed legislation, which would “halt Big Tech’s censorship of Americans, defend free speech on the internet, and level the playing field to remove unfair protections that shied massive Silicon Valley firms from accountability.”
Legal precedent and policy: two vehicles for change
The concern for companies that provide platforms for the flow of information is that they could lose certain liability protections through legislation or a change in precedent. Historically, those protections did take up much mental real estate for Congresspeople, the White House and is often held up in court.
But that tide may be shifting.
In May, the court ruled against the popular messaging company Snapchat’s Section 230 defense, claiming that it could be held civilly liable because it had created a dangerous product following the death of a 20-year-old Snapchat user who crashed his car in 2020 while using a filter on the app that rewarded fast driving.
Reaching 120 miles-per-hour at one point, the crash also killed two teenage passengers. Two of the victims’ parents sued Snapchat for wrongful death, claiming that the reward system on that filter encouraged reckless driving.
The case was thrown out of court on Section 230 grounds, but the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court revived the case, reversing the ruling and favoring the victims, holding Snapchat liable for creating an inherently dangerous product.
Carrie Goldberg, founder of C.A. Goldberg, a victims’ rights law firm, said Tuesday that this ruling offers a “small window of online platform accountability,” in which platforms might be held liable for published content when that content demonstrates a harm to the public.
Goldberg referenced another case out of Texas last month, where the state’s supreme court ruled that Facebook could be held liable after three plaintiffs filed separate suits against the company, alleging that they became victims of sex trafficking, being lured in through people they met on Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook claimed immunity through Section 230, but the court sided with the plaintiffs, saying the provision does not “create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet.” The court made a further clarification that Section 230 protects online platforms from the words or actions of others, but “[h]olding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing.”
This particular case may only be applicable to Texas jurisdiction, however, and hold little impact for the rest of the country, as part of the case was fought using a Texas-specific statute that allows civil lawsuits “against those who intentionally or knowingly benefit from participation in a sex-trafficking venture.”
In May, observers noted that a number of these legal decisions reversing course on Section 230 matters could lead to a floodgate of other lawsuits across the country.
Narrow Majority of Supreme Court Blocks Texas Law Regulating Social Media Platforms
The decision resulted in an unusual court split. Justice Kagan sided with Justice Alito but refused to sign his dissent.
WASHINGTON, May 31, 2022 – On a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that Republicans had argued would address the “censorship” of conservative voices on social media platforms.
Texas H.B. 20 was written by Texas Republicans to combat perceived bias against conservative viewpoints voiced on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms with at least 50 million active monthly users.
The bill was drafted at least in part as a reaction to President Donald Trump’s ban from social media. Immediately following the January 6 riots at the United States Capitol, Trump was simultaneously banned on several platforms and online retailers, including Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and myriad other websites.
See also Explainer: With Florida Social Media Law, Section 230 Now Positioned In Legal Spotlight, Broadband Breakfast, May 25, 2021
Close decision on First Amendment principles
A brief six-page dissent on the matter was released on Tuesday. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the law should have been allowed to stand. Justice Elena Kagan also agreed that the law should be allowed to stand, though she did not join Alito’s penned dissent and did not elaborate further.
The decision was on an emergency action to vacate a one-sentence decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court had reversed a prior stay by a federal district court. In other words, the, the law passed by the Texas legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott is precluded from going into effect.
Tech lobbying group NetChoice – in addition to many entities in Silicon Valley – argued that the law would prevent social media platforms from moderating and addressing hateful and potentially inflammatory content.
In a statement, Computer & Communications Industry Association President Matt Schruers said, “We are encouraged that this attack on First Amendment rights has been halted until a court can fully evaluate the repercussions of Texas’s ill-conceived statute.”
“This ruling means that private American companies will have an opportunity to be heard in court before they are forced to disseminate vile, abusive or extremist content under this Texas law. We appreciate the Supreme Court ensuring First Amendment protections, including the right not to be compelled to speak, will be upheld during the legal challenge to Texas’s social media law.”
In a statement, Public Knowledge Legal Director John Bergmayer said, “It is good that the Supreme Court blocked HB 20, the Texas online speech regulation law. But it should have been unanimous. It is alarming that so many policymakers, and even Supreme Court justices, are willing to throw out basic principles of free speech to try to control the power of Big Tech for their own purposes, instead of trying to limit that power through antitrust and other competition policies. Reining in the power of tech giants does not require abandoning the First Amendment.”
In his dissent, Alito pointed out that the plaintiffs argued “HB 20 interferes with their exercise of ‘editorial discretion,’ and they maintain that this interference violates their right ‘not to disseminate speech generated by others.’”
“Under some circumstances, we have recognized the right of organizations to refuse to host the speech of others,” he said, referencing Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc.
“But we have rejected such claims in other circumstances,” he continued, pointing to PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins.
Will Section 230 be revamped on a full hearing by the Supreme Court?
“It is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies, but Texas argues that its law is permissible under our case law,” Alito said.
Alito argued that there is a distinction between compelling a platform to host a message and refraining from discriminating against a user’s speech “on the basis of viewpoint.” He said that H.B. 20 adopted the latter approach.
Alito went on, arguing that the bill only applied to “platforms that hold themselves out as ‘open to the public,’” and “neutral forums for the speech of others,” and thus, the targeting platforms are not spreading messages they endorse.
Alito added that because the bill only targets platforms with more than 50 million users, it only targets entities with “some measure of common carrier-like market power and that this power gives them an ‘opportunity to shut out [disfavored] speakers.’”
Justices John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett all voted affirmatively – siding with NetChoice LLC’s emergency application – to block H.B. 20 from being enforced.
Parler Policy Exec Hopes ‘Sustainable’ Free Speech Change on Twitter if Musk Buys Platform
Parler’s Amy Peikoff said she wishes Twitter can follow in her social media company’s footsteps.
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2022 – A representative from a growing conservative social media platform said last week that she hopes Twitter, under new leadership, will emerge as a “sustainable” platform for free speech.
Amy Peikoff, chief policy officer of social media platform Parler, said as much during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday, in which she wondered about the implications of platforms banning accounts for views deemed controversial.
The social media world has been captivated by the lingering possibility that SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk could buy Twitter, which the billionaire has criticized for making decisions he said infringe on free speech.
Before Musk’s decision to go in on the company, Parler saw a surge in member sign-ups after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for comments he made that the platform saw as encouraging the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, a move Peikoff criticized. (Trump also criticized the move.)
Peikoff said she believes Twitter should be a free speech platform just like Parler and hopes for “sustainable” change with Musk’s promise.
“At Parler, we expect you to think for yourself and curate your own feed,” Peikoff told Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark. “The difference between Twitter and Parler is that on Parler the content is controlled by individuals; Twitter takes it upon itself to moderate by itself.”
She recommended “tools in the hands of the individual users to reward productive discourse and exercise freedom of association.”
Peikoff criticized Twitter for permanently banning Donald Trump following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and recounted the struggle Parler had in obtaining access to hosting services on AWS, Amazon’s web services platform.
While she defended the role of Section 230 of the Telecom Act for Parler and others, Peikoff criticized what she described as Twitter’s collusion with the government. Section 230 provides immunity from civil suits for comments posted by others on a social media network.
For example, Peikoff cited a July 2021 statement by former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki raising concerns with “misinformation” on social media. When Twitter takes action to stifle anti-vaccination speech at the behest of the White House, that crosses the line into a form of censorship by social media giants that is, in effect, a form of “state action.”
Conservatives censored by Twitter or other social media networks that are undertaking such “state action” are wrongfully being deprived of their First Amendment rights, she said.
“I would not like to see more of this entanglement of government and platforms going forward,” she said Peikoff and instead to “leave human beings free to information and speech.”
The acquisition of social media powerhouse Twitter by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, raises a host of issues about social media, free speech, and the power of persuasion in our digital age. Twitter already serves as the world’s de facto public square. But it hasn’t been without controversy, including the platform’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump in the wake of his tweets during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Under new management, will Twitter become more hospitable to Trump and his allies? Does Twitter have a free speech problem? How will Mr. Musk’s acquisition change the debate about social media and Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act?
Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:
- Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer, Parler
- Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
Amy Peikoff is the Chief Policy Officer of Parler. After completing her Ph.D., she taught at universities (University of Texas, Austin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States Air Force Academy) and law schools (Chapman, Southwestern), publishing frequently cited academic articles on privacy law, as well as op-eds in leading newspapers across the country on a range of issues. Just prior to joining Parler, she founded and was President of the Center for the Legalization of Privacy, which submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Facebook in 2019.
Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
Leave Section 230 Alone, Panelists Urge Government
The debate on what government should — or shouldn’t — do with respect to liability protections for platforms continues.
WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022 – A panelist at a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday said that the government should not make changes to Section 230, which protects online platforms from being liable for the content their users post.
However, the other panelist, Newsweek Opinion Editor Josh Hammer, said technology companies have been colluding with the government to stifle speech. Hammer said that Section 230 should be interpreted and applied more vigorously against tech platforms.
Countering this view was Niam Yaraghi, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
“While I do agree with the notion that what these platforms are doing is not right, I am much more optimistic” than Hammer, Yaraghi said. “I do not really like the government to come in and do anything about it, because I believe that a capitalist market, an open market, would solve the issue in the long run.”
Addressing a question from the moderator about whether antitrust legislation or stricter interpretation of Section 230 should be the tool to require more free speech on big tech platforms, Hammer said that “Section 230 is the better way to go here.”
Yaraghi, by contrast, said that it was incumbent on big technology platforms to address content moderation, not the government.
In March, Vint Cerf, a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, and the president of tech lobbyist TechFreedom warned against government moderation of content on the internet as Washington focuses on addressing the power of big tech platforms.
While some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms”, others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Legislation from the likes of Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would exempt 230 protections for platforms that fail to address Covid mis- and disinformation.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed that Section 230 only protected “neutral platforms,” or that it allowed tech companies to ignore user harm. Wyden, one of the authors of the provision in the 1996 Telecom Act, instead believes that the law is a “sword and shield” to protect against small companies, organizations and movements against legal liability for what users post on their websites.
Additional correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a statement by Niam Yaraghi to Josh Hammer. The story has been corrected, and additional context added.
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