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.
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.
Reforming Section 230 Won’t Help With Content Moderation, Event Hears
Government is ‘worst person’ to manage content moderation.
WASHINGTON, April 11, 2022 — Reforming Section 230 won’t help with content moderation on online platforms, observers said Monday.
“If we’re going to have some content moderation standards, the government is going to be, usually, the worst person to do it,” said Chris Cox, a member of the board of directors at tech lobbyist Net Choice and a former Congressman.
These comments came during a panel discussion during an online event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute that focused on speech regulation and Section 230, a provision in the Communications Decency Act that protects technology platforms from being liable for posts by their users.
“Content moderation needs to be handled platform by platform and rules need to be established by online communities according to their community standards,” Cox said. “The government is not very competent at figuring out the answers to political questions.”
There was also discussion about the role of the first amendment in content moderation on platforms. Jeffrey Rosen, a nonresident fellow at AEI, questioned if the first amendment provides protection for content moderation by a platform.
“The concept is that the platform is not a publisher,” he said. “If it’s not [a publisher], then there’s a whole set of questions as to what first amendment interests are at stake…I don’t think that it’s a given that the platform is the decider of those content decisions. I think that it’s a much harder question that needs to be addressed.”
Late last year, experts said that it is not possible for platforms to remove from their site all content that people may believe to be dangerous during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. However some, like Alex Feerst, the co-founder of the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, believe that platforms should hold some degree of liability for the content of their sites as harm mitigation with regards to dangerous speech is necessary where possible.
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